Jennifer Zelnick

Name: Jennifer A. Zelnick
Program, year: Anthropology, 7th year (graduated June 2022)
Hometown: South Orange, NJ
Undergrad, master’s institutions: BA, Haverford College; MA, University of Chicago

What made you decide to pursue anthropology as a field, and particularly at UCI? What interests you most about your work?

I majored in anthropology as an undergraduate but went to Cambodia to conduct public health research. While interesting, what was most compelling to me was a harm reduction project I worked on with deportees. Learning about their experiences, and thinking about their struggles alongside my own family's history of refuge and diaspora, set me on my path. The case of deportable Cambodian American refugees is clearly important as the United States continues to accept refugees, while also continuing to criminalize noncitizens, including refugees. 

I lived in Cambodia as a Luce Scholar in 2012-2013, which started me on my trajectory to study Cambodia American refugees and deportation. I chose to attend UCI both because of the excellent Anthropology program and because of Irvine's proximity to Long Beach, which is home to the largest Cambodian diaspora population in the world. 

What implications does your research have for the general community?

In addition to the above, the idea that humanitarianism and refuge are temporary and that the criminalization of noncitizens includes refugees has important implications for both US refugee resettlement programs now and moving forward, not just about how these programs were conducted in the past. The United States often frames itself as a refugee receptive and welcoming country, but proves time and again that this welcome is multiply limited to those refugees deemed acceptable.

Where can your work be found for others to learn more, and which institutions have supported your research?

  • “Suspicious Citizenship, Bureaucratic Coordination, and the Deportation of Cambodian American Refugees.” Political and Legal Anthropology Review 44(2): 271-286.
  • “Everything Isn’t Fine: Chronic Illness and Maintaining the Status Quo in the Time of Covid-19.” American Ethnologist’s "Pandemic Diaries."
  • “Cambodian American Deportable Refugees and Transnationalism.” Committee on Refugees and Immigrants (CORI)’s Porous Borders, Invisible Boundaries: 91-95.

My research has been supported by a Center for Engaged Scholarship Dissertation Fellowship, UC Irvine School of Social Sciences Christian Werner Fellowship, Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research Dissertation Fellowship, Social Science Research Council International Dissertation Research Fellowship, National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Grant: Cultural Anthropology, Center for Khmer Studies Senior Research Fellowship, UCI Center for Global Peace and Conflict Studies Student Research Support Grant, and UCI Center for Asian Studies Graduate Student Research Support Grant.

Who were your faculty mentors while here, and what impact have they had on your graduate career?

Leo Chavez and Eleana Kim were my co-chairs. Their expertise, rigorous attention to detail, and support of my research shaped me as a scholar. Sylvia Nam and Susan Coutin were committee members and provided additional expertise, guidance, and support. Rubén Rumbaut served on my advancement to candidacy committee and has remained a supportive mentor for the four years since then. 

What do you plan to do after finishing your graduate degree? How has UCI prepared you well for this role?

I'm waiting to hear back about a few academic and non-academic roles but will likely end up in research and policy related to immigration. I will be staying in Los Angeles where I have lived since 2020. UCI has prepared me to conduct vigorous research and to present it to diverse audiences. The anthropology department's focus on grant writing will also serve me well in my future endeavors. 

Any other tidbits you’d like to share?

A major priority for me has been using my academic credentials and expertise as an advocate. I have served as an academic expert (expert witness, amicus curiae, pardon writer) for over 30 cases to prevent deportation or overturn an individual's deportation. I have spoken to politicians and media to further this work as well. I will continue my advocacy in the future.


© UC Irvine School of Social Sciences - 3151 Social Sciences Plaza, Irvine, CA 92697-5100 - 949.824.2766