From Thailand to the local passport agency, a student explores new horizons

Topher Taylor, 2021 MIA candidate, shares his experience as a Robertson Fellow and where in the world a degree in international affairs can take you

Aug. 27, 2020 | By Virginia Watson | GPS News

For Topher Taylor, receiving a Robertson Foundation for Government fellowship at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS) has expanded his educational experiences and future career goals beyond what he imagined.  

Here, the 2021 Master of International Affairs (MIA) student discusses how he chose to study at GPS, his research foci—which range from disability rights on college campuses to Thai politics—and how his time as a Robertson Fellow has prepared him for a career in the federal government.

news_topher-taylor.jpgWhere are you from, and what led you to UC San Diego and GPS?
I came to GPS after graduating with a B.S. in geography from Brigham Young University. I was looking for a school where I could study international affairs with a focus on Southeast Asia, specifically Thailand. I lived in Thailand as a volunteer for a couple years as an undergraduate, learned Thai and gained a real interest in the country. Here, I’ve not only been able to do a Southeast Asia specialization, but also have the flexibility to do research and write papers about different aspects of Thai politics and society. 

How has being a Robertson Fellow influenced your academic focus at GPS?
As Robertson Fellows, we commit to working in the federal government for at least three years after graduation, which was a sector I was relatively unfamiliar with before coming to GPS. Being a fellow has given me a lot of opportunities to explore the variety of departments and agencies both in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. 

In the GPS curriculum, we often touch on government bureaucracy and policymaking, so the background on government work that I’ve gained from the fellowship program has helped me take those concepts and envision how they might work in practice. Being a fellow has also pushed me to be more ambitious and take on my current job at the San Diego passport agency, which is going to be a big time commitment. In the end, though, the job will put me in a great place to transition into other jobs in the federal government after GPS.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of being a Robertson Fellow?
One of the most valuable experiences was traveling to D.C. last year to visit places like the U.S. Department of State and the Government Accountability Office, as well as to hear from alumni and previous fellows about their experiences working in different government jobs. Being a fellow has opened my eyes to an entirely new field of employment, and I’m very grateful for that.

What type of federal government job do you hope to pursue after graduation?
I’m open to a lot of possibilities, especially after seeing how I’ve enjoyed my current job; I wouldn’t have predicted I’d like passport adjudication as much as I have. Just the other day I heard about the Office of Disability Integration and Coordination at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for the first time, which is now on my radar as a potential future destination. I’m frequently exposed to new agencies or offices that might be off the public radar but are doing really interesting work in my interest areas of disability, human rights and Asia-oriented policy. I’d say some of my main interests are with the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in the State Department, the Government Accountability Office or the United States Institute of Peace. 

How has the novel coronavirus pandemic affected your work at the passport agency here in San Diego?
I’m working as a passport adjudicator at the San Diego Passport Agency and will continue throughout the rest of the upcoming school year. The agency was completely shut down until finals week of the spring 2020 term, so I was actually not disrupted by the pandemic too much and started on time. Since we’re considered an essential service, we’ve been working in the office on the backlog of applications from before and during the pandemic. I didn’t know exactly what to expect going into the job, but there’s just so much variety that you encounter on a day-to-day basis. It feels great to be able to help get passports to people who need them during this stressful time. 

Tell me more about your research on disability accommodations at colleges and universities in the U.S. 
I’ve been interested in this topic since I met my wife and we worked together on a commission she formed in our senior year of undergrad. It was called the Equal Access and Disability Rights Commission, and we basically compiled disabled students' experiences to expose the shortcomings in disability accommodation and equal access at our university. 

My research this past year at GPS has expanded on that work with the commission to find that poor access to accommodations is a nationwide problem facing disabled students. I attempted to analyze why this problem exists and concluded that disabled students are often viewed as a burden by administrators, faculty and fellow students, which leads to negative perceptions surrounding disability accommodations. The negative perceptions are influenced by the general societal perceptions that we have about disability being a liability or a deficiency that uses up our shared societal resources.

A common thought process among people trying to solve this problem is that we just need to have better laws that enforce students’ rights to accommodations, and while I agree that laws may help, I feel like the main issue is the perceived legitimacy of accommodations among individuals on college campuses. In order to raise the level of legitimacy that people attach to accommodations, there needs to be a much broader discussion of disabled students’ experiences, including faculty training and campus-wide awareness events.

A second proposal from my research is to create campus organizations for disabled students so that the older students can mentor the new students and so that they can confront the problems in the flawed accommodations system together rather than individually. 

How did you keep in touch with your classmates as courses were moved to an online format for the spring term? 
We did a lot of group chats with people commenting on things that were happening during class, venting about assignments. Sometimes we were able to get together and play some group games online, which was fun. For the fall, I’m planning on being entirely online with no classroom attendance, so it will probably be a lot of the same. Hopefully now that we’ve been through one quarter of online classes, another one won’t be too bad.

What's your favorite thing about living in San Diego? 
I’ve never lived this close to the beach before, and I thought I would miss the mountains and hiking that I loved growing up. But I’ve really enjoyed how much there is to do outdoors in San Diego – and within just a 20-minute-or-less drive from UC San Diego. Plus, the weather is great all year round so you can be outdoors no matter the season. 

Additional student stories:

It’s time for San Diego to talk trash

A day in the life of a remote student

Robertson Fellows show commitment to public service

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