Students across campus support innovation at U.N. refugee agency

1 Alice Dola

Ben Rudolph was an ambitious computer science major planning to remain in Silicon Valley and join one of the many start-ups eager for young Stanford grads. But in his senior year he took a class, “Rethinking Refugee Communities,” which knocked him off his path and got him thinking about how to use that ambition for the greater good.

The class was co-taught by Tino Cuéllar, a Stanford Law School professor and director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Cuéllar led the class while co-director of FSI's Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), which had just launched a collaboration with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The agency was looking for innovative ideas to support and protect the more than 42 million refugees, internally displaced and stateless people around the world.

When Rudolph graduated in June, he turned down offers in local tech firms and headed to Geneva as an intern for UNHCR’s nascent innovation lab. He joined Stanford alumna and CISAC faithful, Alice Bosley, in the small office with a big mission: to aid refugees by driving innovation using the latest tools of technology. 

“I get to make a difference in the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in the world: refugees,” said Rudolph, a 23-year-old from Naperville, Ill., who came to Stanford on a gymnastics scholarship. “And I love that I get to meet such a diverse group of people with wildly different opinions about so many things.” 

Rudolph has now joined UNHCR Innovation full time and has traveled to Ecuador to pilot one of his projects and to Thailand for an innovation workshop. On a recent trip to Esmeraldas on the northwestern coast of Ecuador, he tested out an SMS program that would help displaced people get information from the UNHCR and its partner organizations. 

Bosley, the associate operations officer at UNHCR Innovation, first joined the U.N. as an intern speechwriter at the Permanent Mission of East Timor to the United Nations in New York. She was visiting some CISAC colleagues in the spring of 2012 when she learned about the burgeoning collaboration between the center and UNHCR. She volunteered for the project and became an intern with the newly formed UNHCR Innovation team, where she was later offered a full-time position.

Alice Bosley crossing a river near the Dollo Ado UNHCR refugee camp in Ethiopia.

Alice Bosley crosses a river by the Dollo Ado UNHCR refugee camp in Ethiopia.           Photo: UNHCR Innovation




“UNHCR Innovation is my dream job; I am constantly traveling to new and interesting locations to work on projects and I’m able to support some of the most creative and impressive people in the organization,” said Bosley, 25, who graduated in 2011 with a degree in international relations. “It’s challenging and sometimes overwhelming. But I wouldn’t pick anything else to do at this point in my life.” 

Rudolph and Bosley are models of the CISAC mission: to train the next generation of experts who will make the world a safer place. While not entrenched in the policy arena or at the forefront of arms control or Track II diplomacy, they are quietly, doggedly fulfilling the CISAC pledge to improve lives around the world. 

"One of CISAC's greatest strengths over the years has been its record of attracting enormously talented students and fellows from a diverse array of disciplines and giving them a chance to work on problems that affect lives around the world,” said Cuéllar. 

The UNHCR came to Cuéllar in early 2012 asking to collaborate. That initial request has led to an array of projects across campus and around the world. Cuéllar last year co-taught the class, “Rethinking Refugee Communities,” with Leslie Witt of the Palo Alto-based global design firm IDEO. That class in turn led to research trips in Ethiopia and Rwanda with UNHCR and the International Rescue Committee to test out some of the student projects to improve food security, communications, camp design and an SMS platform that Rudolph later tested with the innovation lab. 

“Ben and Alice were attracted to the refugee project because of its focus on improving conditions for forced migrants,” said Cuéllar. “Both of them are brimming with intellectual curiosity, ability, and dedication, so it's no surprise that UNHCR has put them at the center of its innovation work." 

The collaboration now extends far beyond CISAC. Cuéllar, CISAC visiting professor Jim Hathaway of the University of Michigan Law School, Roland Hsu of the Stanford Humanities Center and the NGO Asylum Access are convening a winter quarter working group on refugee rights. Stanford faculty will come from many departments to talk about the tension between providing emergency care and protecting refugee rights. 

CISAC led the UNHCR to the Stanford Geospatial Center, where students are working on four mapping projects to help refugees, including an interactive map that displays the density for refugees seeking shelter in that conflict. 

“Working with the UNHCR was truly a unique experience for us,” said Patricia Carbajales, geospatial manager at the Branner Earth Sciences Library who linked the students with the UNHCR advisers in Geneva and field offices around the world. “The students were completely engaged, understanding the importance that their projects had for UNHCR and, most importantly, for the refugees themselves.” 

The popularity of the projects has led to a new class in the spring, “GIS for Good: Applications for GIS for International Development and Humanitarian Relief.” 

Cuéllar and Elizabeth Gardner, associate director for partnerships and special projects at FSI, are working with UNHCR architects and the New York-based Ennead Architects Lab to develop new tools to expedite the complex process of laying out new refugee camps. 

Stanford’s Haas Center for Public Service and the student-led Stanford in Government is making moves to permanently place interns or postgraduate fellows at UNHCR. FSI Senior Fellow Paul Wise, a professor of pediatrics at Stanford’s School of Medicine, will mentor that intern in the coming year. 

Meanwhile, out in the field, Rudolph doesn’t know if his UNHCR experience has forever changed his career path. He may come back to the valley and pick up where he left off; he may continue his humanitarian work. 

Either way, he says, “This work has really opened me up to a world of problems that are so vast it’s hard to grasp. It will be forever difficult to go back to my ignorant bliss.”

Ben Rudolph, center, with Sudanese refugees in a UNHCR refugee camp in Ethiopia, March 2013.

Stanford students Parth Bhakta, left, and Ben Rudolph, talk with Sudanese refugees at the UNHCR camp in Bambasi, on Ethiopia's eastern border with Sudan. Photo: Beth Duff-Brown