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Giving Back, Globally

Kayla Ma

Photo of Kayla Ma by Abbey Becker

Kayla Ma, BA international studies ’14, grew up in Oakland, Calif., helping her father organize community events, like National Night Out, toy drives, and a know-your-neighbor campaign. When it came time to decide what she wanted to study in college, she decided to approach community service with a wider lens and pursue global environmental politics and international development. “I realized I could take my involvement to an international level,” she says. “I could affect the whole world.”

She wasn’t sure what issue she specifically wanted to focus on within development when she came to AU, but she knew she wanted to have a broad impact with whatever she decided on, and she wanted to include her environmental interests. “I thought about issues that affect everyone, and I found that water fit the bill,” says Ma. “It’s not only an environmental issue; it’s a cultural issue, too.”

International studies majors are required to take two years of language as part of their degree, and Ma originally thought Hebrew was the way to go. “Israel has a lot of really cool water technologies,” she explains. “But I considered the political situation and decided to study Arabic instead, because I could branch out into other countries in the Levant, even into the Persian Gulf and northern Africa.” The Levant region includes most of modern Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian territories, and sometimes Cyprus, Turkey, and Iraq.

Ma spent her 2011 winter break on an olive farm in the mountains of northern Jordan, in a town called Aljoun. She’d taken five semesters of Arabic by then, including completing the summer intensive intermediate Arabic course in the summer of 2011, and she felt prepared to converse with Jordanians. “It’s so strange; I thought I had it down,” she says. “But of course, what they teach here at AU is formal. It makes sense, because it’s the Fus’ha (Modern Standard Arabic) that you can take to basically any Arab-speaking country, but there are so many dialects to contend with once you’re there.”

In addition to the changing dialects, what most struck her while in Jordan was the country’s approach to water management. “The culture is really based around water,” she explains. “Each family only gets a certain amount of water piped into a tank every two weeks, and every family, no matter the size, has to manage that. For instance, laundry isn’t done as frequently as it’s sometimes done in the U.S. Sometimes, I think we have a false illusion of how much water we really have, but Jordan has a pretty realistic grasp on it.”

In April 2011, Ma was notified that she’d won a scholarship from the Morris K. Udall and Stewart L. Udall Foundation, which awards $5,000 to 80 college sophomores and juniors each year who are committed to careers in the environment, tribal public policy, or Native American health care. Morris and Stewart were both from Arizona and active in politics—Morris was a U.S. senator and Stewart made the Department of the Interior what it is today—and they focused much of their attention on water conservation. “This scholarship perfectly aligns with what I’m studying,” says Ma. “I’m honored, because it’s the national environmental scholarship.”

Beginning in the fall of 2012, Ma will begin a year abroad in Jordan. She’s planning to take a water politics course, as well as an intensive Arabic program in an immersive setting. She will also try to set up an internship with a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor that focuses on water filtration or water management. “I’m really interested in public-private partnerships on water policy,” she says. “I’d like to find an internship while I’m in Jordan to at least establish some connections. After I graduate, I’d like to go back to Jordan, or to somewhere that has issues with water management and politics.”

She’s also interested in figuring out what water management programs work where. Northern Jordan and southern Jordan, for instance, have different climates, which means they have different water management needs. “I learned in one of my classes that there are over 130 recognized microclimates worldwide,” says Ma. “It’s important to make sure that you’re matching the right climate with the right project.”

While studying abroad at the University of Jordan next year, Ma hopes to find one club on campus that she gets really involved in and through which she can inspire more environmental awareness. “In class, we talk about whether we should focus on globalizing issues or localizing issues,” she explains. “I think it’s in localization that people get inspired, and inspired people are what we need. Localizing has a strong impact on how global issues develop and evolve over time.”