College students use undergrad NSF grant to study migration in France

The National Science Foundation has awarded two University of Chicago undergraduate students with summer research grants in France, where they are studying different aspects of France’s large and varied immigrant communities. Their work in anthropology and public policy will help the United States government understand its role in a world where hundreds of millions of people move away from their homeland.

“There are very few people in the United States researching the lives of European and African immigrants, but their perspectives inform the entire field of migration research and can help us understand how migrants integrate into their host societies” said Jennifer Cole, professor in human development. The NSF funds Cole’s cultural anthropology research on how marriage influences migration, specifically among African women who marry French men with the goal of migrating to Europe.

Sophia Arabadjis and Katherine Jinyi Li, the fourth-years who won the grants, are working with Cole through an NSF program called Research Experiences for Undergraduates. It offers extra money that allows students to supplement a faculty member's grant and complement that research with additional work. While the students’ research differs from Cole’s, the areas of overlap should enrich Cole’s work and add value to the entire field.

Pulling strings on the way to Europe

Sophia Arabadjis has spent the better part of this summer brushing up on French and reaching out to a broad network of people from Cameroon who currently live in Paris. She plans to interview them about the debts they called in or incurred as they migrated to Paris. Not monetary debts, but favors to family, friends or strangers.

“I think that these social debts, or petits services, can shape entire communities when they are carried over from Cameroon to Paris,” Arabadjis said. She intends to find out how this debt affects immigrants by collecting their stories and studying their social networks.

Poor Cameroonian women migrating to rich countries often pay back the people who arranged their journey by working as domestic servants for a fellow immigrant’s family, for example. Men will repay their social debts through other low-wage work. What seems to people in the West like the exploitation of highly vulnerable people is sometimes a deeply entrenched social norm for the enrichment of an entire community.

Cole mentored Arabadjis and guided her to turn her intellectual interest in Cameroon migrants into a workable project for the National Science Foundation. Arabadjis hopes to gain intimate, first-hand knowledge of the social debt among Cameroonian immigrants through primary sources and subjects. She will compile this research into an honor’s B.A. thesis when her travels end.

“Most ethnographic research can take a year or two years,” Arabadjis said, “and I must do this in only a few months.” The anthropology student is making contacts among immigrants from her own network of friends in Cameroon and Paris, and through the help of Cole’s networks.

Arabadjis will spend two months focused entirely on this research before beginning study abroad courses in African Civilizations at the Paris Center. During the Fall Quarter, historians and anthropologists from the UChicago faculty will teach intensive sessions on various aspects of African history and civilizations, with a trip to Senegal near the end of the quarter.

“Anthropology is an enormous challenge—each opportunity for research and study changes how I think and how I approach people,” Arabadjis said. While this research project certainly qualifies as challenging, she said she feels prepared by the UChicago intellectual environment. “People here truly challenge themselves to learn, and to change the usual ways of thinking,” she said.

When the right story checks all the right boxes

Katherine Jinyi Li is the child of immigrants, fluent in Mandarin, French and Spanish, and ready to take an activist’s approach to the injustices suffered by migrants through the legal system.


People living in France sans-papiers, or without paperwork, often live in the shadows of society. “Government policies are constantly changing, rendering people who were formerly qualified for legal status as suddenly unqualified. Every turn of policy can keep them from access to work, social housing, health services, and other benefits of the state,” Li said.

Li will tackle the implications of these policies from a historical perspective, by researching how immigrants without papers learn to narrate a certain account of their lives in order to gain access to the protections of the state. If they are recognized as a refugee, for example, they can live and work more freely. But government officials listen for specific things in a person’s life story to grant them legal status. How immigrants navigate these bureaucratic paths forms the question at the heart of Li’s summer research.

To examine this, Li is working with migrant and refugee rights organizations and recording the oral histories of immigrants. Over time, such organizations also create narratives. As a history student, Li will record and study these narratives, and will see how they become a national narrative of immigration.

“Coming from an immigrant family and community, I've always been interested in migration issues, and particularly in the issue of racial and ethnic plurality in society,” Li said. France is a fascinating place to study the benefits and strains of ethnic plurality, she said, because of the high value the government places on preserving French identity and culture.

Li also worked closely with Cole to find a focus that would add to French immigrant studies and that could feasibly be accomplished with one summer of fieldwork. The chance to work with Cole on this topic has been a capstone to the academic work that Li has undertaken at UChicago. She studied the sans-papiers long before this summer, and has worked closely with her history professors on modern social history and human rights in France.

Li also has a summer internship with the Human Rights Program. This allows her to spend her summer both researching and assisting non-governmental organizations in their human rights missions.

When choosing a college, Li says she knew that UChicago would give her a peer group of students who would be passionate about learning and research. “Something I didn’t realize—that I really appreciate now—is how supportive, available and fascinating the professors are as well,” she said.

The benefits to Cole of adding these two young scholars as a corollary to her NSF grant are indirect. “They’re young and bright, and they bring new energy and perspectives to the field,” she said.

Cole said she’s already enriched by the work of her UChicago colleagues, who have different perspectives on migration to France from the former French colonies. As principal investigator on the grant, Cole will continue her cultural anthropological work on marriage in migration to France, with a few new voices in the mix. And beyond all that, Cole said, “It’s fun to work with students.”