Profile with Kelly O'Connor
Kelly O’Connor (Maritimes & St. Antony’s 2011) recently completed her Master’s in Public Policy and Masters in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at the University of Oxford. Her work focuses on armed conflict. She has previously worked with the Canadian Collaboration for Immigrant and Refugee Health, the Centre for International Studies at Mount Allison University, and the Consortium on Gender, Security and Human Rights. She holds a B.A. in International Relations from Mount Allison University.
Rhodes Project: What is your favorite hobby?
Kelly O’Connor: Something that I very much enjoy but rarely get the chance to do is rock climbing. I used to do it much more when I was at home in Canada. It’s a very challenging activity and it gives you a different way of seeing the world.
Rhodes Project: What surprised you the most about Oxford?
Kelly O’Connor: I think the different layers of history, the fact that the place is so old, that so much life has been lived there. I think the oldest thing in my hometown in Canada is a 100 year old tobacco barn that’s decomposing in the middle of a field.
Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a favorite past project?
Kelly O’Connor: A couple of years ago I did an internship with an academic NGO called the Boston Consortium on Gender and Human Rights. I was conducting research on gender critiques of humanitarian law and I was looking at documents that would be used to lobby the UN Security Council and on topics related to gender. I really enjoyed seeing how the language of academia translated into to what’s going on at that high level.
Rhodes Project: How did you first become interested in forced migration studies?
Kelly O’Connor: It was quite by accident. I had no previous work in forced migration before the Rhodes, so it was quite a deep dive into a new field. Displacement is such a common outcome of armed conflict, an important human dynamic, and I was immediately very interested in it.
Rhodes Project: Do you feel like your studies have affected the way that you relate to your own home or homeland?
Kelly O’Connor: Talking about home and what home means is a huge field in forced migration studies. I think that it has prompted me to think about Canada in a different way. Before the Rhodes I was doing a lot of development-focused issues, issues where Canada was peripherally involved as a foreign aid donor, but I now I am more inward focused, looking at our asylum policies and how Canada deals with people that are at the border directly seeking assistance. My studies have taken a look at the policies of Germany, Australia, the United States, all over really. It has changed my perspective and highlighted how these issues connect developing and developed countries.
Rhodes Project: If you had unlimited resources to address one issue, local or global, what would you choose and why?
Kelly O’Connor: The humanitarian sector I think is the one that I know best and the one that I would like to work in. There’s obviously funding shortfalls there. Having said that, I think the political will to actually tackle these issues is what’s most important: you need the impetus to create a sustained response to armed conflict, to not just react to situations after they happen, give some aid and then leave again after a few years. I’d also use those resources towards researching what happens on the ground in these situations. This field suffers from generally very poor data, we just don’t really know what programs work well and in what contexts.
Rhodes Project: How do you hope to use your academic experience in shaping your career?
Kelly O’Connor: The idea is to find a job that combines my two degrees. My Masters of Public Policy and a Masters in Forced Migration have given me very different skill sets, one more practical and one more academic. I’d like to work with refugees, in the context of armed conflict. There’s often talk about the ivory tower being divorced from the field and that’s definitely not something that I want to characterize my career.
Rhodes Project: If there was one person on earth that you were able to meet, who would you pick and why?
Kelly O’Connor: I think that I would like to meet Aung San Suu Kyi, from Burma. She has faced so many struggles, not only in her own life but on a grander scale, particularly in terms of Burma’s own troubled history. I’d be fascinated to hear how she perceives the world and the transition that Burma is going through right now.
Rhodes Project: What brings you the most joy in life?
Kelly O’Connor: Being with my friends and my family is always a huge source of joy, but what I find most exciting are the challenges that lie ahead of me in life. Conflict and humanitarian crises are chronic challenges; they have always been with us and probably always will be. I try to see that challenge as an opportunity to make a change.
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