Miguel Becerra, a first-year MSW student, plays the Cajon drum.
Miguel Becerra, a first-year MSW student, plays the Cajon drum.

Two first-year Master’s of Social Welfare students were recently awarded the Research and Innovation Fellowship from U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to conduct research in developing nations over the summer. For the inaugural fellowship, USAID is partnering with six universities, including Berkeley, UC Davis, and the University of Chicago, to fund students whose research addresses global issues. The $10,000 fellowship, which was offered to over 90 students, will support travel and living expenses while abroad.

As part of their fellowships, Miguel Becerra and Thabani Nyoni will be returning to their native continents of Latin America and Africa to work with marginalized communities.

Becerra, who is specializing in Management and Planning, will travel to Bogota, Columbia, to work with the non-profit Familia Ayara — which uses the arts as a tool to empower youth. Throughout the summer, Becerra will be working as a program evaluator “to measure the impact that the programs are having on reality.” Familiar Ayara also hosts a drug-abuse prevention class and hip-hop workshops to encourage the teens to discuss problems that arise in their community.

Although Becerra began playing music when he was young, he became interested in its role in social justice when he was conducting research in Peru for his Master’s in Latin American Studies. As a native of Peru, Becerra was conducting research on the Afro-Peruvian community when he became interested in their music.

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Thabani Nyoni

He is currently using his background in the arts and social work to teach a rhythmic arts project at The Arc of San Francisco — an organization focused on helping adults with intellectual and mental disabilities. Once a week he uses percussion and drums as a form of therapy and a learning tool for his students. He hopes that the USAID fellowship will give him new ideas about how to incorporate music into teaching. “I see it as a stepping stone and something that could help me find different ways to use arts for social change,” Becerra says.

Nyoni, who is originally from Zimbabwe, will be working in South Africa with Sonke Gender Justice — an organization that promotes equality of the sexes. For his project, he will be conducting surveys and partnering with other organizations and government officials to analyze how gender imbalances affect communities. He hopes that the fellowship will help build his skill sets in policy, advocacy and research.

The opportunity draws upon Nyoni’s past experience of working for non-profits. Prior to enrolling at Berkeley, he worked for social movements concerned with the fair treatment of service people. At Berkeley, he has gained skills that he says will help him accomplish his dream: “I left Africa because I wanted to get transferrable skills that I can bring back.”

To learn more about the Research and Innovation Fellowship, visit the USAID website.

Categories: Honors and Awards, March 2015

About Melissa Hellmann

Melissa Hellmann is a second-year student at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism where she's focusing on long-form writing. When she's not writing for GradNews, she enjoys reporting on Asia and human rights issues.