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FLAS Graduate Spotlight: Hilary Faxon


Edited by Catarina Massa, MPA '19

Hilary is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Developmental Sociology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS). Before coming to Cornell, she received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at Yale University in Environmental Studies and Environmental Management. She first became interested in Asia when she visited China during college, and she lived in Bhutan for some time after graduating.

Hilary’s current research focuses on the Myanmar’s land politics, investigating access, use, and claims to farmland during the political transition. Now in full dissertation mode, Hilary spends her days riding on motorcycles with local land activists and interviewing farmers. When getting to an interview site, Hilary often does not know what to expect. “I’m surprised every day,” she said. “Usually in a pleasant way but sometimes in a traumatic way.” Hilary has seen first-hand how the political situation in Myanmar has affected the lives of farmers and civilians.

Cornell’s reputation for Asian studies and language attracted Hilary when thinking about where to do graduate work. She has received three years’ worth of FLAS funding to study Burmese, which has connected her to the broader Burmese community and culture. According to Hilary, FLAS has been significant for her research because her ability to speak the language has allowed her to connect with people “on a human level.”

If you are a graduate student interested in applying for FLAS, Hilary suggests demonstrating a strong commitment to mastering the language to some degree. Reviewers look for excitement and curiosity. As for students interested in learning a language more generally, especially a Southeast Asian language, Hilary’s advice is to immerse yourself as soon as possible and not be afraid to speak.

“Curiosity is really important in language learning, especially with a language like Burmese. Find delight in the language, and approach it as a puzzle.”

Hilary has another 12 months of field research, then she will return to Ithaca to write her dissertation. Hilary plans to become a professor in the long term, and she is currently working on improving her teaching skills.

Fun fact: Needing a break from research, Hilary’s Burmese friends dressed her up in traditional clothing, hair, and makeup. She then went to a Hollywood-like studio and did a fashion shoot.