First Person: Undergraduate Conference Offers a Chance to Share my Studies Abroad


Shelly Le ’14 in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

To be honest, I’ve never liked public speaking. My palms always become laced with sweat from nervousness, and I develop a temporary forehead furrow from thinking too intently on what I plan to say.

Some people never have to run through their presentations beforehand and seem to be near perfect. I, however, do not have the same good fortune. Maybe it’s all in my head, but I have to practice my whole presentation at least four times before I feel confident enough to talk in front of a large room of people.

So why go through this torture?

Highlights from the 2013 conference

The answer to this question is, of course, that I want to share my work with friends, to whom I can never fully explain my research during brief conversations, and with Whitman students, and faculty, who, more than anybody, know the difficulty and obsession that comes with conducting immersive research.

On April 9, 2013, at the Whitman Undergraduate Conference, I presented my research on malnutrition in Indian women. My 12 minute presentation covered how gender inequality can affect economic and political access to food. Using India’s diversity as a focal point, I discussed how cultural attitudes toward women’s independence can be the cause of good or bad nutrition.

While participating in an off-campus studies program in Jaipur, India, last semester, I spent a little over a month collecting primary data and scouring academic journals.

By the time my research project was over, my final paper was more than 50 pages long, and I had collected about 32 interviews with Indian women, government officials and educators, to name a few.

Although my month of research consumed a short period of my life and will always affect the way I view gender dynamics and food, I have a hard time explaining my research to my friends and family. Even spending too long talking about my study seems almost selfish; as though I’ve taken up too much of my friends’ time.

The Whitman Undergraduate Conference, however, gave me a chance to give my professors, peers and acquaintances a snapshot into my research. As much as I hate to speak in front of people, those 12 minutes before a large crowd allowed me to present my strongest argument in a safe space and know that people were genuinely interested in what I had to say.

This has been my second time presenting at the conference, and I had felt the same sense of satisfaction and closure my first time as I have felt this year. Though presenting in large crowds never comes easy, I have become more confident with each presentation I give. Practicing certainly helps with making me a more confident presenter, but so is also the knowledge that I have contributed a small part to the academic community.

Even though I finished my research nearly four months ago, I am glad to re-live my study through my presentation.

About the author: Shelly Le ’14 is a politics major, sociology minor from Salt Lake City, Utah. Last semester, Shelly studied abroad on the SIT: Sustainable Development and Social Change program in Jaipur, India.