M.R.P. Student Focuses on Disaster Risk Mitigation in the Philippines

April 14, 2017

Benjamin Coleman (M.R.P. '17) recently sat down for an interview with Deborah Membreno, a master's student in international development in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences who works with the Southeast Asia Program (SEAP).

Membreno: What are you studying and what is your area of focus?

Coleman: I am a second-year M.R.P. student in CRP, focusing on international studies in planning. The bulk of my recent work has been split between a research focus on disaster risk mitigation — specifically, the social factors that affect risk — and my work with the Philippines' Department of Transportation on a bus rapid transit system for Cebu City.

Membreno: Could you tell me a bit about how you first became interested in this area of work?

Coleman: Actually, my parents had a huge impact on my interest in this area, both geographically and in the fields of planning and disaster risk mitigation. I was born in the Philippines, and lived there for five years before moving to the U.S. I remember as a little kid going to McDonald's with my family, and my parents teaching my siblings and me to eat half of our food and give the other half to the homeless children who stayed nearby. From experiences like this, issues of social equity and poverty alleviation became incredibly important to me. Planning, disaster risk mitigation, etc., have been practical avenues for working toward effective solutions. My current program has helped me better understand the structures that reinforce and propagate the existence of poverty and other social injustices.

Membreno: What have you learned about this region and find valuable to share?

Coleman: Due to its location along the Ring of Fire, the Philippines is considered highly at risk from exposure to earthquakes, typhoons, and volcanic activity. During my graduate studies, I explored the strong link between poverty and the level of vulnerability to these natural hazards. While technical solutions mitigate some of the risks, a majority of the problems stem from social inequity. While the Philippines generally has progressive policies in place for dealing with disaster risk, capacity and enforcement remain key limiting factors.

Membreno: How have you connected with the Southeast Asia Program at Cornell?

Coleman: I have had a number of great conversations with faculty and staff associated with SEAP. They were incredibly helpful as I was developing contacts in the Philippines for work or research, and they were able to point me to other useful resources to deepen my understanding of my field.

Membreno: What has been your experience as a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellow?

Coleman: I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to continue my language learning. While most of my work in professional settings is conducted in English, improving my proficiency in Filipino gives me access to hearing the needs and interests of millions of people for whom English is not the first language. The area studies component has been equally valuable, as it has been a way to continue exploring my field of interest as it affects the Philippine context.

Membreno: What are your future plans, and after graduation?

Coleman: Fingers crossed, I hope to be directly involved in disaster risk mitigation work in the Philippines long-term. I am attracted to the scale of projects undertaken by organizations like the Asian Development Bank.

Membreno: What advice would you give to a new graduate student?

Coleman: There is a wealth of resources available for students to dive deep into their academic and professional interests — use them! From my experience, faculty and staff, workshops and speaker series, and available funding are more than enough to find what we need as students, but it typically takes some additional effort outside of one's general routine. Second, there are a lot of really interesting physical education classes, and I wish I would have started off graduate school taking one each semester. In the midst of all the academic work and especially during the winter months, it is so important to find ways to stay active. The class adds a bit of accountability.

Membreno: How do you like to spend your time outside of Cornell?

Coleman: My wife and I have really enjoyed exploring the area around Ithaca. There are many beautiful places to see and even revisit. I also love the people in my program, and it's always a lot of fun to get together with any number of them outside of an academic setting.

Republished with permission from the Southeast Asia Program website.

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