2016 Class Acts

Looking Abroad

Ryan Mikkelsen searches for solutions to global poverty

Ryan Mikkelsen, a Class Act, has been accepted into Yenching Academy in Beijing, China. Joe Angeles/WUSTL Photos

Ryan Mikkelsen, a Class Act, has been accepted into Yenching Academy in Beijing, China.
Joe Angeles/WUSTL Photos

It’s not like Ryan Mikkelsen didn’t know poverty existed. He grew up in Cleveland, which, like most American cities, struggles with homelessness and hunger. But a high school trip to rural Dominican Republic to dig latrines shook his worldview.

“It’s one thing to see homelessness in Cleveland, but here was a place without basic infrastructure,” said Mikkelsen, who will be graduating with a degree in economics and international and area studies in Arts & Sciences. “It expanded my concept of poverty from something that happens in the inner cities of America to something that is a global issue that has to be tackled on a global scale.”

At Washington University, Mikkelsen has researched how multiple factors, from energy to emigration, impact struggling nations. But what really intrigues Mikkelsen is economics. “I remember sitting down in my microeconomics class, and the first chapter was ‘Thinking Like an Economist,’” Mikkelsen recalled. “I was surprised by that. I thought of economics as math. But it’s really about learning why people behave the way they do.”

After graduation Mikkelsen moves to the one nation that has managed to beat back poverty for millions — China. He has been selected as a Yenching Scholar, an elite interdisciplinary graduate leadership program at the Yenching Academy of Peking University in Beijing, China. There he will continue his research into development finance — why traditional forms of aid often fail and how new forms of capital, such as social entrepreneurship exchanges and social impact bonds, can kickstart economies.

“China is the outlier,” said Mikkelsen, who is fluent in Chinese. “They’ve been able to lift people out of poverty at an unprecedented scale. That’s not to say its economic development is perfect — there’s overcrowding and environmental issues. But, as someone who wants to learn about poverty and development, I need to look to China to see what has been done correctly and what has been done incorrectly.”

The Yenching Scholars program debuted just last year, but already is considered a top fellowship. The inaugural class boasts 125 students from 37 nations. Mikkelsen will complete the program with a master’s degree in Chinese studies.

“Going forward, no matter what you are interested in, China is going to be at least tangentially related. That certainly will be true in development and development finance,” Mikkelsen said. “I’m excited to see up close what’s happening there. Closer is always better.”

by Diane Toroian Keaggy

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