Dr. Uehling received her BA in International Studies at the University of Oregon, later going on to complete a Masters in Ethnology and PhD in Anthropology at the University Michigan. Her field of expertise includes national security, migrant rights, human smuggling and trafficking, as well as migration and conflict in Ukraine and Crimea. Her previous work includes the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, USAID and the Watson Institute at Brown University.
A lot has changed since Dr. Greta Uehling first joined the Program in International and Comparative Studies (PICS). The University of Michigan’s football team finally ended a decade-long losing streak against their rival, Ohio State University, for one. The PICS program, too, has grown dramatically since the program’s foundation in 2005. In celebration of her tenth anniversary with the PICS program, we sat down for a conversation with Dr. Greta Uehling to discuss the PICS program and her career.
What makes PICS different from other programs?
“What distinguishes PICS is really... the interdisciplinary nature of the program. Einstein is reputed to have once said creativity is more important than knowledge, and I think that warrants emphasis. So much scientific discovery takes place at the edges of disciplines and the places that they intersect...[This] is an important strength that PICS brings to the University and when you combine that with the support for study abroad, finding internships, [and] the honors program, what you have is an experience… [in which] students get to do things really only graduate students can: The breadth of a liberal arts education at the same time that they have the freedom to tailor a program of study to their specific interests.”
You’ve been with PICS for ten years. What has changed? What has stayed the same since you first joined?
“I think the core values of [the] program are still the same. The primary change, really, is PICS’ phenomenal growth. In fact, PICS has been growing… at the same time that other majors, other disciplines, have been shrinking. My PhD is in cultural anthropology and anthropology has been losing students at the same time that PICS has been gaining students.”
Do you think that those students leaving other disciplines have been funneled into PICS?
“Oh definitely. They see those draws [the flexibility and strengths of PICS].”
Are there any courses that PICS hasn’t offered yet that are on your personal wishlist that you would love to teach?
“One of the most fabulous parts of my job is that what I teach is my wishlist. The program has given me a fair amount of freedom to design courses that are both relevant to world events but also build upon my scholarly interests and scholarly strengths.
I teach a lot of courses in different aspects of human rights, humanitarianism, but I see growth potential in topics [in my courses that] I can only devote a week to already, but that I would love to expand upon into an entire course.
For example, I teach a course called ‘People, Land and Time’ and in that course we focus on the human relationship to landscape and temporality. We spend maybe three classes on climate and migration – and that could be a whole course! Climate induced migration does not currently have a special legal status but it encompasses so much. To address all the concerns related to climate migration is so important… Climate Change is a challenge that faces the entire world.
In another course, we spend maybe a half an hour on child migrants and child trafficking survivors – and that could be an entire course, too.”
On that note, can you explain what your focus is within the topic of Migrant Rights?
“I’m very interested in the ‘securitization’ of migration – the way migration is defined and perceived as a security threat and the repercussions that has for the rights of migrants.”
When you approach migrant rights and national security, do you think of them as distinct topics or interrelated?
“I see them as interrelated. I approach them together… [and] I think that’s what makes it so interesting. There’s a tension there. Migration is a security issue and national security is important. The worst transgressions against migrants’ rights take place in the name of security… The crucial question is precisely how to balance these objectives so that migrants’ rights are not transgressed without national security benefits. You want to protect national security but not at the expense of migrants’ rights.”
What do you feel is the biggest issue concerning migrants’ rights today?
“It's hard to say if there is a biggest or most important issue. I think a really good way to think about it is in terms of [questions like]: What are the neglected issues? What are the issues that tend to fall under the radar?
[One is] gender and migration, which needs more attention. Women who are seeking asylum on gender grounds, it is much more difficult… They tend to get asylum on other grounds or take subsidiary humanitarian statuses. It’s a neglected issue that really requires more attention.”
Are there any courses in PICS that address that topic now?
“You know, I don’t think there are any courses like that in PICS.”
Migrants’ Rights is a very complex, very big issue, but for some students it may seem far removed from their own lives. How do you go about bringing this topic to life beyond the “textbook”?
“I think one of the signatures of my teaching approach over the last ten years has been the inclusion of “first person perspectives,” by which I mean a person’s narrative about their own experience. And I feel those [narratives] are very relatable… when you listen to what people say about their experience, it can deconstruct stereotypes, challenge previously unquestioned assumptions and bring us back into a more creative space of thinking outside of our typical assumptions, our expectations.
The other part of my teaching is exposing fallacies. We’re so inundated with social media, so much of our awareness of current events comes from comedians, blogs and podcasts – very informal sources – and I really like to look at those [sources] and unpack them, to expose the fallacies they contain. A lot of the time when you examine logic slowly, carefully and patiently, you realize that what is masqueraded as an argument is not holding.”
Is it difficult to access those “first person perspectives?”
“It’s true that it can be difficult to access the voices of the most traumatized and most marginalized people, by virtue of their traumatization and marginalization. However, you would be surprised by how available they are. Take refugees –– it’s often assumed that if a person has a cellphone to take pictures that they are clearly too wealthy to be a ‘‘real' refugee. But that’s just a silly assumption. Our smartphones are lifelines; they are survival devices. It’s not unusual for a refugee to have a cellphone. If you had to flee your home, the most important thing to grab would be your phone. It has your pictures, contacts, ways to network, finances. Last semester I taught a course called ‘refugee voices’ and one of the topics the students really liked was refugee selfies and how refugees end up being challenged when using their voices. So, these voices are available, you just have to look for them –– and you have to create a space where they count.”
A few months ago, U.S. news headlines focused on mistreatment of Haitian refugees at the border. Given what you said on protecting national security without sacrificing migrants’ rights, how do you think this situation could have gone differently?
“Customs and Borders Patrol is the largest law enforcement organization in this country, so I think that there’s need to be greater accountability, deeper investigation, and I don’t want to say a demilitarization of customs and border patrol, because that has so many unfortunate connotations, but I do think education and training for the forces protecting this country is key.”
Jumping off that into national security, are there any key issues in national security that “keep you up at night” or that you find are particularly important?
“I’m very concerned about cybersecurity, and I think that we’re not doing enough on that issue. It’s an area that I think will be the next ‘frontier’ of war. So much more needs to be done to reduce our vulnerabilities. It’s not just foreign technology companies or the ‘Chinese,’ or the allegations about Russian election interference, but it does go to the core of our democracy, the core of the security of our financial and banking systems, [and] what kinds of information is available to people. I really think cybersecurity is crucial.”
Do you think cybersecurity is being taken seriously right now?
“The United States Intelligence services are taking it very seriously. We [the public] are not necessarily aware of everything they’re doing. But if I was starting my career over tomorrow, I would look very seriously at cybersecurity as an avenue where you could have enormous positive impact.”
What topics within National Security do you focus on in your work?
“I’m very interested in Crimea –– Crimea is very important because it’s the first military invasion to take place on European territory since World War II and what has happened since Russia took control of Ukraine’s Crimean territory is that it [that area] has become heavily militarized, which represents a security threat to Europe, and it is a security issue that I don’t think is receiving enough attention.”
Switching topics, what are you working on now?
“I was a Fulbright scholar between 2015 to 2017 and I did field work in Ukraine. The book I'm currently writing –– the provisional title is Everyday War –– is about what happens to civilians in a warzone, how do they cope, focusing on conflict in Eastern Ukraine. It’s finished and waiting for publication now.
Are there any other projects you’re working on or looking forward to?
“My main focus is on teaching PICS students right now –– thinking about the passage of a decade, it really does feel like I got here yesterday and that is because PICS students are such a joy to teach. In fact, my book is dedicated to them. It’s been such a meaningful chapter of my career. I worked for the United Nations. I’ve worked for NGOs. But teaching PICS students is just fabulous. You’re inquisitive. You’re talented. You’re dedicated. As far as I’m concerned, you’re all the most fun people on the planet to talk to. I stayed a decade because I enjoyed this work and it’s meaningful.”
Are you looking forward to perhaps another ten years with PICS?
“I don’t know, it’s hard to predict!”
To end our conversation, when you’re not working what do you like to do for fun?
“Dancing with my partner and paddle boarding –– also with my dog!"