By Max Wynn
UCLA Luskin Student Writer
Jennifer Larr grew up in Orange County, graduated with a Master of Public Policy from UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, and today calls the Southland home. However, it was the time she spent in places far removed from Southern California’s sun-drenched beaches that made her the woman she is today.
Rwanda has had a tumultuous history and in the 20th century alone its people have endured civil war, famine, genocide and the AIDS epidemic. After receiving her undergraduate degree from UC Davis, Larr served with the peace corps in Rwanda from 2009 to 2011.
“[It] was probably the most formative point in my life” Larr says now. “I was simultaneously learning many hard realities about the world, but also many harsh truths about myself.”
Upon returning from Rwanda she enrolled at the UCLA Luskin School. Her dedication to advancing gender equity while working in international development dovetailed with the School’s curriculum. Luskin enabled Larr to build upon the skills she had learned in Rwanda, while also offering her the flexibility to pursue her international interests.
“The Public Policy program seemed very skills-based and I was looking to really develop my abilities to research and design quantitative and qualitative studies,” explained Larr, who graduated from UCLA Luskin in 2013. "The program also left a lot of room for moving outside of the major to take courses that helped me expand my academic knowledge on international development"
Larr’s commitment to working in the field of gender equity grew out of her experiences abroad, but also from the way her travels were perceived at home.
In her first year at UCLA, Larr was featured in an NPR report that highlighted her decision to live what she describes as a “global lifestyle.” She says she was shocked by the overwhelmingly negative response of American listeners.
“[They] were highly upset about the idea of a young woman rejecting traditional gender roles and stereotypes” Larr said. “It was interesting because I spent a lot of time juxtaposing my experience in Africa with my experience at home and was a bit unsettled to see how attitudes toward women are not so different on either continent.”
The skills she gained in Rwanda and at UCLA have already paid dividends, both for her and for those she is dedicated to assisting.
In the summer of 2012, while still a student at UCLA, Larr returned to East Africa for an internship with Raising Voices, an organization which is the coordinating office of the Gender-Based Violence Prevention Network. After a highly successful internship Larr was contracted as a consultant, a position she still holds today.
She describes the organization as, “a network of nearly 50 partner organizations, with over 450 members, in 16 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, that are working to promote gender equality and to end violence against women.”
"When I went to work for Raising Voices in Uganda it was a totally different experience because I was a very different person, had a better idea of what to expect, and knew how to operate in a new culture,” she continued.
Larr is bilingual and clearly well traveled, and each of her journeys has left her better prepared for the next. While still an undergrad, she spent a year studying abroad in France. Determined to become fluent in French, and believing that her “skills in the classroom had reached an apex,” Larr wanted to “test my abilities in the field."
The test was a revealing one, and she discovered the limits of what one can learn in the classroom. This was the first of many times throughout her travels that Larr would be forced to learn on the fly, and she thrived under the pressure.
“Now, I adamantly believe that the only real way to learn a language is to live in an immersive context,” she said. “When someone needs to become excellent at something in order to manage his or her day-to-day affairs they will rise to the occasion.”
This sentiment served her well in Rwanda, where she says, “there were suddenly volumes of things I didn’t have a clue about and needed to know immediately."
The scars of violence and hunger run deep in Rwanda, and many of its people are still deeply mired in poverty and disease. Yet in the years since the genocide, Rwanda has undergone a striking recovery. According to a report by Neal Emory of The Atlantic, life expectancy has doubled while the GDP per capita has increased three-fold.
Even in a nation that has taken such great strides in reversing a cycle of poverty and violence, it can be difficult to celebrate development when so many people continue to suffer. When Larr reflects on her time in Rwanda her words echo the complexity of the situation there.
“To be perfectly honest, my being there likely did more good for me than it did for anyone I was sent to assist,” she said. “But I like to think it also armed me with the proper tools to assess and maximize the things I have to offer those in need in the future.”