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Delving into questions points Emory College grad to in-depth policy work

By April Hunt | Emory Report | May 5, 2020

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Kendall Chan doesn’t shy away from asking questions, especially those that relate to how current policies affect others. The history and political science major hopes to continue feeding her curiosity, whether working on a doctoral degree or in a thinktank.

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With the presidential election dominating conversations, Kendall Chan arrived at Emory College of Arts and Sciences in fall 2016 thinking she would major in political science.

Beyond that, she was unsure of what she wanted to become or what she might have to offer. Chan aimed wide to find the answers, attending every lecture or event that caught her eye and immediately volunteering with groups that sent her out into the community.

Those decisions encouraged frank and thoughtful conversations on campus and beyond. They also revealed Chan’s skill at collecting disparate information and parsing out common attributes – the sort of public policy analysis work she can see herself doing after she graduates on May 11.

“If there is a theme to my time at Emory, it’s been how much I’ve learned from the all people around me,” says Chan, a double major in history and political science.

“I admire people who have the courage to share their perspective because it definitely makes me confident to share where I am coming from,” she adds. “That space to see someone else’s experience makes such a difference for forming ideas.”

That productive curiosity – wanting to know and understand different perspectives – stood out to Astrid M. Eckert, an associate history professor who taught Chan in her “History of Now” seminar focused on connecting current events to postwar Europe. Eckert went on to successfully recommend Chan as a Dean’s Achievement Scholar and became her history department adviser.

“Kendall is the ideal liberal arts student,” Eckert says. “She has well-considered positions, but that doesn’t keep her from questioning them. I never had a meeting with Kendall that it wasn’t the highlight of my day.”

The pieces fall into place

Each of Chan’s questions opened doors to new opportunities in understanding social and political concerns. But they were borne out of the frustration when, in high school, she felt she wasn’t learning enough about the funding cuts that directly hurt her public school in Raleigh, North Carolina, or hearing more than slogans on immigration policy changes that threatened the Latinas she tutored at a nearby cultural center. 

It was that interest in immigrant rights that led her to a campus panel on the Syrian refugee crisis in Germany shortly after she arrived at Emory. Eckert was a featured speaker, having just returned from research in Berlin where she lived next to a refugee center.

Chan was so impressed with Eckert’s passion that she made a point to sign up for her seminar, quickly realizing that history would help crack the questions she had.

The same thing happened in the fall of her second year, when Chan attended a lecture featuring Andra Gillespie laying out the link between white supremacy and Confederate monuments in the wake of the deadly Unite the Right rally in Virginia.

Gillespie, an associate professor of political science, already had taught Chan in an introductory course. She went on to become her political science adviser and admit her into a graduate-level research seminar. Chan also worked as Gillespie’s undergraduate research assistant, developing and piloting a survey measuring how the race of a mass shooter affected public perception of mental illness as a factor.

“Kendall is astute. She knows how to ask the right questions to get an answer,” says Gillespie, who also heads Emory’s James Weldon Johnson Institute. “She has an agile mind to see how things fit together.”

Digging for additional answers 

Chan’s pursuit of finding the pieces to fit extended beyond the classroom. On campus, she worked as a resident adviser and was active in the Emory Scholars program, the Emory Honor Council and Dooley’s Players, where she wrote and acted in plays.

Her volunteer work with Project Shine first sent her out in the community, where she helped elderly immigrants practice for their citizenship exams and interviews. She also led after-school tutoring at a Clarkston elementary school.

Chan dove deeper into community issues as an intern with the Georgia Women’s Policy Institute, researching proposals in the state legislature and working as a researcher for Stacey Abrams’ gubernatorial campaign.

Those experiences exposed her preference for in-depth policy work, not the rushed, political research required in campaigns. Chan cemented that interest with an internship last summer at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, where she examined how federal agencies planned for and adapted to the 2019 government shutdown and developed policy briefs for Georgia lawmakers as part of a political science course taught by professor Michael Rich last fall. 

“I’ve been extremely lucky in the opportunities I have had, to try a little of everything,” Chan says. “I prefer to take my time, go in depth and collect viewpoints before I can analyze, because it’s only become more clear to me over time how intertwined so many of those things are.”

She will continue her interdisciplinary queries next year in the prestigious Robert T. Jones Jr. Scholarship program at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Chan, an alternate in the exchange program who was elevated after original recipient Samah Meghjee declined, will pursue a masters degree in terrorism and political violence. 

After that, Chan is weighing whether she wants to continue looking for answers through a doctoral degree or a thinktank role. Either way, she is grateful that Emory showed her the value in being as expansive as possible when asking questions.

“You can’t argue someone’s experience. It’s just true,” Chan says. “Because of that, people have vastly different ideas about the role of government and solutions to or even the existence of a problem. I owe a great deal to the people around me who made sure I understood including that in asking where we go from here.”