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From Molecular Biology to Martial Arts, this Rutgers Senior Built a Full Undergraduate Experience

Soo Jeong Hwang, a Molecular Biology and Biochemistry major, takes advantage of the Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences focus on interdisciplinary studies by minoring in French.

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Rutgers Student Interviews French Far-Right Leaders


A political science and French major had questions for the party of Le Pen  

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John Capangpangan couldn’t believe what was happening.

It was 2016 and the Rutgers University undergraduate was studying in France at a time of political upheaval. The National Front, the far-right party founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen and now led by his daughter Marine Le Pen, was ascendant.

“It was all over the newspapers and television,” says Capangpangan, a senior in the School of Arts and Sciences. “I found it shocking that 25 percent of the people in the country believed and supported the message that they were putting out.”

Capangpangan returned to New Brunswick at the end of  the year, but kept a close watch on French politics. Centrist Emmanuel Macron won the 2017 presidential election decisively, but Marine Le Pen captured 33 percent of the vote with a campaign that warned darkly against immigrants, Islam, and globalization.

“At that point I wasn’t totally surprised because of what had happened in the United States with the 2016 election,” Capangpangan says. “But I had this idealized notion of France and I was profoundly disturbed that the National Front had reached the level of popularity that it had.”

Capangpangan, double majoring in French and political science, was also intensely curious about how it all happened. He yearned to take an in-depth look. So he returned to France in early 2018 and interviewed about a dozen members of the National Front, everyone from student activists to regional officials to national party leaders. His research will fuel his honors thesis.

“It was incredible,” he said. “I was drawing from both of my academic passions, French and political science, and also the personal experience I had when I was living in France and seeing what was happening.”

The research also dovetailed with the work he had been doing as an intern at Eurasia Group, the global consulting firm that analyzes political developments around the world and provides risk assessment.

“I was learning about the risks that the rise of anti-democratic movements can have on the private sector, and on societal institutions at large,” he said. “So my curiosity was really piqued.”

Capangpangan received financial support for his project from the Aresty Research Center and the Department of Political Science. He was able to find interviewees from contacts supplied by his thesis advisor and European studies scholar, Professor R. Daniel Kelemen.

But nothing could’ve prepared him for the reality of meeting face-to-face with members of the National Front. Capangpangan, who was born in the Philippines, said the experience was both intriguing and unsettling.

“I was repeatedly asked, ‘what is the origin of your last name?’’’ he said. “I’d tell them I am Filipino, and they’d be taken aback and kind of humbled. Here is this American person of color speaking French.”

But he also said that the interviews went smoothly, and that party members were cooperative and professional.

“I was not there to judge or confront,” he said. “I was there to do research.”

Marine Le Pen is considered more nuanced than the party’s old guard, which has roots in the Nazi collaborators of Vichy France. She severed ties with her father, and sought to project a cleaner image during the last election.

Capangpangan questioned his interviewees at length about race, and received responses that reflect a deeply-held “French first” worldview.

“A lot of them said they don’t care about race as long as people put French culture and ideas before themselves,” Capangpangan said. “This is a party that really believes in the nation-state, and the notion that people must abide by the same cultural, religious, and unspoken rules about society.”

And that, he noted, is antithetical to the American practice of declaring hyphenated identities and heritage.

“I love that I can identify as a Filipino American,” he said. “There is not that idea in France. You are only French.”

Meanwhile, he added, the National Front is not going away anytime soon. 

“If the Macron presidency doesn’t turn out well, the party is going to be stronger,” he said. “There is a lot of pain in the French countryside. Unemployment is high, and the National Front has convinced a significant number of people that it will preserve their culture and protect their jobs.”




Student Facing Illness Started Rare Disease Day at Rutgers

"Show Your Rare" is theme for Feb. 28 worldwide event 

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At the start of her sophomore year, Rutgers University student Allysa Kemraj found herself becoming increasingly ill.

She was diagnosed in high school with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a rare genetic disease that affects the body’s connective tissue. But that fall her symptoms had worsened.

“One day in October I woke up unable to walk,” said Kemraj, now a senior majoring in cognitive science in the School of Arts and Sciences. “I had spinal stenosis caused by three ruptured discs, and in the months following, I’d be hospitalized nearly biweekly.”

The health crisis spurred her to organize the first-ever Rare Disease Day event at Rutgers. Early into the spring semester, she prepared a presentation about her illness and booked space at Busch Engineering, Science and Technology Hall. She figured a smattering of her friends would attend.

“I needed an outlet to talk about it,” she said.

But the event drew a modest audience that included faculty, staff, and students, some of whom she did not even know. There was applause, and follow-up questions.

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“When I saw the turnout, I was floored,” she said. “It showed me that people from all facets of Rutgers cared, and wanted to learn more about rare diseases.”

Since then, Kemraj has made Rare Disease Day—which is observed worldwide on the last day of February—an annual tradition at Rutgers. Last year she led a discussion about research. This year the February 28 event will feature a guest speaker, the New York City-based photographer, Karen Haberberg, whose recent book, An Ordinary Day: Kids with Rare Genetic Conditions, chronicles the everyday lives of children with rare diseases.

“This book really touched me,” Kemraj said. “She was able to portray these children in a way that gives them dignity while capturing their day-to-day experience and the experience of their parents.”

Kemraj, who wants to pursue an MD/PhD and become a physician, said the book affirmed her life’s mission. “I read it and thought ‘this is what I want to do for rest of my life,’’’ she says. “These are the kinds of patients I want to work with.”

Rare Disease Day was first launched in Europe in 2008 by an alliance of health organizations with the goal of educating the public as well as elected officials, policy makers, researchers, and industry. The United States joined in 2009, and in 2013 President Barack Obama sent a letter proclaiming his support of the day.

In the U.S., a disease or disorder is defined as rare when it affects fewer than 200,000 people. One in 10 people in the United States are living with a rare disease, a total of 30 million people

Kemraj says Rare Disease Day helps patients feel affirmed, and builds awareness of the importance of scientific research. But she also emphasized that people who previously knew nothing about rare diseases are left inspired. After the 2017 event, she received  emails from faculty and students, including a pharmacy major who wanted to do his project on rare diseases.

 “We know that in one in 10 people are living with a rare disease,” said Kemraj, who is fundraising chair for the National Society of Collegiate Scholars, which is presenting the event.“These are people in our communities and in our neighborhoods. Our lives become richer and more meaningful when we know them and support them.”

The Rare Disease Day event begins at 8:30 pm, February 28 at the Livingston Student Center Room 201a. This year's Rare Disease Day theme is #ShowYourRare! For more information, click here.




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