Finding her way

Early childhood experiences led Katie Kao to international studies at UCI

Katie Kao
 Katie Kao has made the most of every opportunity that’s come her way at UCI since switching her major from business to international studies. Kao pictured in Europe during a study abroad experience.

Katie Kao’s international childhood between Taiwan and the U.S. foreshadowed her academic path toward international studies. Drawn to the warm California weather and the possibility of being in a different environment than where she spent high school in the Queens borough of New York City, Kao arrived at UCI in 2019 with the intention of studying business and connecting with some relatives she had not yet met. She soon changed tracts.

“I talked to a peer advisor who shared his experiences about doing study abroad and then going into international studies as a major,” says Kao. “Based on his advice, I decided that I wanted to give international studies a try.”

She started to explore the major and liked the courses. For international studies majors, one of the requirements is studying abroad for a quarter - something Kao had always wanted to do since high school. She had her sights set on Japan and had taken five quarters of Japanese at UCI, but with the Covid pandemic, those plans were canceled several times.

Fortunately, UCI’s Education Abroad Program offered an alternative with the Global Cities Urban Realities program that appealed to Kao. With courses that span topics in health, immigration, national identity, and human rights, Kao was drawn in and able to study and visit Paris, London, and other European cities.

“Europe was a new continent for me, and it was great to explore something new,” she says.

Kao also took advantage of a virtual study abroad internship in Sydney, Australia where she worked as a legal intern.

“I was working in the U.S. with people in Australia. There weren't fixed hours, so if I encountered an issue or problem where I didn't know what to do next, I would have to wait for my supervisor to respond because of the time zone difference,” says Kao. “Working remotely internationally forced me to think through problems first before asking questions. During this time, there was a lockdown in Sydney due to the pandemic, and my supervisor was working from home so he experienced challenges as well.”

Taking advantage of research opportunities

Katie Kao Trip to England
 Katie Kao trip to England.

While she’s been able to have international experiences virtually and in real life, on campus, Kao has immersed herself in research opportunities. Under the mentorship of international studies associate professor of teaching Philip McCarty, Kao has been studying domestic violence and isolation that students experienced during the Covid pandemic. Her research question addresses whether students were at greater risk of being victims of domestic violence during the public health crisis.

“Dr. McCarty has been very helpful to me in my research process. He’s very responsive to his students, and he’s been able to guide me through some challenges that I have encountered with my research,” says Kao. “A lot of domestic violence cases are unreported, and the pandemic was a unique time to examine this issue because people spent more time at home.”

Her research has involved interviewing counselors and social workers, with a focus on student experiences with domestic violence. She plans to present her research in mid-May at the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) symposium.

Her mentor has been pleased with Kao’s diligence in conducting research.

“Katie is not one of those students who is just sitting in class waiting for things to happen. She’s making things happen,” says McCarty. “In the fall, she developed an exciting research proposal. In the winter, she conducted her research and did interviews. Now in spring, she is presenting her findings at UROP and writing it all up as an honors thesis. When Katie applies to graduate or professional school, she is going to have more than a GPA, she is going to have a great story to tell.”

One of the benefits of attending a university like UCI is the ability to pursue research projects as an undergraduate with professors who are at the forefront of research and innovation. Kao’s timely research topic about student experiences with domestic violence during Covid provided her an opportunity to dive into inquiry-based learning with a trained social scientist.

Becoming a stronger communicator and storyteller

Telling a great story is something that Kao has worked on as a member of the Zotspeak Toastmasters club, a group dedicated to helping faculty, staff and students become better public speakers. The former president of the club was a staff member on campus who encouraged Kao to compete in the Tall Tale Speech contest, where participants tell a story that stretches the truth. Kao progressed from the club to the area, then to the division and district levels, where she earned first place for her speech about a character named Sushi Mountain who was traveling around the world looking for her passion.

Kao has also participated in the Pre-Law Society on campus, which has helped her obtain more information about law school and career opportunities in law. She has held a leadership role as the treasurer intern and became the executive treasurer for the club.

As she gets ready to graduate and leave UCI, Kao is already preparing herself for the LSAT and law school applications. She would like to take a growth year or two to continue to work on her essay and verbal communication skills while working with an organization focused on human rights.

“I want to give back to the community by advocating for human rights. This would allow me to use the experiences that I have had at UCI with my major and my research,” says Kao. “I have lived in different places, and I have seen the differences among people from varying socioeconomic backgrounds. I feel like I understand the struggles that people are going through, and this is why I want to commit myself to serving underprivileged people.” 

 - Adriana Maestas for UCI Social Sciences



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