International politics student uses research assistantship to chart career path

Katie Moats
February 11, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For many students, their choice of major is influenced by their upbringing and/or other personal experiences. Such is the case for Luisina Kemanian-Leites, a Penn State sophomore majoring in international politics.

“I grew up in an immigrant household and was fortunate enough to travel often to visit my family outside the United States,” Kemanian-Leites said. “That exposure to other countries at a young age sparked my interest in global studies. Later, when I was in high school, I learned about different international conflicts and became interested in how international relations and diplomacy can mediate or aggravate the situation.”

Once Kemanian-Leites arrived at Penn State, she also realized she wanted to expand her studies by pursuing some of the many research opportunities related to her major. That led her to a role as a research assistant with the Rock Ethics Institute’s Children, Youth and Media in International and Global Conflict Zones initiative, which is led by Yael Warshel, assistant professor of telecommunications and a research associate with the institute. The initiativepart of the Children, Media, and Conflict Zones Lab in the Bellisario College of Communicationsfocuses on examining how the media creates an impact on children who grow up in areas of conflict.

“When I first started working in the lab, I mainly focused on [conducting] a literature review for a journal article on the education of Sahrawi refugee youths [currently living in refugee camps in Algeria],” Kemanian-Leites explained. “The refugee camps have primary schools, but Sahrawi youth typically have to leave home to continue their studies from high school onward sometimes traveling as far as Cuba.

“I also translated and transcribed interviews that Professor Warshel [conducted] with Sahrawi students, which sparked my passion in education policies for refugee populations,” she continued. Kemanian-Leites plans to study human rights law after graduation and eventually hopes to work in the humanitarian aid and diplomatic fields with a specific focus on Latin America and the Middle East.

This semester, Kemanian-Leites’ work will focus on helping Warshel edit her forthcoming book. “[The book] broadens the field and draws upon many other disciplines in a way that has not been done before and will guide scholars and policymakers on how to better serve children and young people in conflict zones that are often forgotten,” she said. “The book also [recognizes] the different children in conflict zones, from those who are girl-mothers to those living in borderlands.”

Kemanian-Leites was able to secure this research position and continue her work with enrichment funding from the Paterno Fellows Program in the fall and by being named a Rock Ethics Institute undergraduate fellow this spring.

“I was especially excited to be named a Rock Ethics Institute undergraduate fellow because it meant I could continue working with Professor Warshel,” she said. “She has been such an amazing mentor and I have learned so much working with her this past year. I also believe the research we are doing is important as we see the rising influence of media, especially social media, on politics. It has the potential to be a tool that gives children living in conflict zones the ability to be change makers in their communities as opposed to the passive actors they are more often considered to be.”

Kemanian-Leites has learned to take advantage of opportunities as they come and appreciates the high-quality education she is receiving. “As a student, I have gained a broader perspective of the world through the courses, professors, and other students I have met,” she said. “The Paterno Fellows Program has also encouraged me to become more involved with campus organizations and my community. I value the people I have met through these opportunities and the experiences I have gained.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated February 12, 2021