The NYU Global Liberal Studies senior talks about her work studying volunteer tourism, her 'Gilmore Girls' obsession, and more.

photo: Melissa Godin, rhodes scholar

Melissa Godin, a senior studying politics, human rights, and sustainable development in NYU’s Global Liberal Studies program, was eating a slice of cake, her phone placed deliberately next to her plate, when she got the call she’d been waiting for: the official word from Oxford that she’d won a Rhodes Scholarship. With her family and best friend already assembled at her home in Vancouver for a celebratory dinner on the eve of her birthday, she got to share the news with them immediately. It’s hard to imagine a better way to ring in one’s 21st year.

Born in Montreal and raised in Vancouver, Melissa is one of just 96 Rhodes Scholars named from around the world this year—and the honor is well-deserved. For her capstone thesis, Melissa is examining the impact of volunteer tourism—service trips and the like—on global development. Her research on orphanage tourism in Cambodia, where she found that the industry was actually undermining the development of child care facilities, led her to found the Not a Saviour campaign to raise awareness about the practice’s potentially detrimental impact. (She hosts a podcast featuring experts on the subject.) Previously, she interned at the Canadian Embassy in Paris and was the head editor for a report on sex trafficking that was used at the 60th United Nations session of the Commission on the Status of Women.

At Oxford, Melissa plans to pursue a development studies degree, a two-year master’s program incorporating field research and a thesis. “I’m thinking of maybe looking at how unconditional direct cash transfers affect women’s agency in Senegal,” she says, “but I’m still brainstorming.”

We caught up with Melissa in the midst of a busy finals season at NYU to toss out another round of rapid-fire questions—including a few that may not have come up in the Rhodes interview.

Dream job when you were 5:
I think I wanted to be a pop star at that point—actually, I think I wanted to be a pop star up until I was 19, although whether I can sing is debatable. I was attracted to that lifestyle, which I'm definitely not now. I’ve also been interested in journalism since I was a kid, which was mainly inspired by Rory Gilmore from Gilmore Girls. But it was a passion that stuck beyond just a temporary obsession.

Dream job now:
I want to be a storyteller for issues of social injustice. I think one of the big problems in the way development currently works is that the underlying root causes of poverty or social injustice are not properly understood. I'm interested in how I can better understand these issues and in turn create more nuanced representations that reflect their complexity.

Most influential class or professor at NYU:
During my second year I took Emily Bauman’s NGO Narratives class, which looks at what is working and what is broken in the development sector. That had a huge impact on what I wanted to do and the way I perceived my studies. I was also influenced by Lorelei Ormrod, who works in the Office of Global Awards, even though we just met a month and a half ago. I never had her in a class, but she helped me through the Rhodes process, and she got me to think about the interaction of personal experience with academia. That really influenced the way that I’m now thinking of moving forward with my studies.

Toughest academic challenge:
I did an exchange at Sciences Po in Paris, last year, and it was tough not because the work was any harder than what’s expected at NYU, but because they wanted your work to be structured in a very specific way. I struggled to try and contain my ideas in this more conservative French structure, while at NYU I've enjoyed the freedom of using whatever medium I want to express my ideas.

Lessons learned during the Rhodes application process:
It’s quite intense! I think taking the first step to apply can be intimidating in part because the process is so intensive and the chance of success is so small. You need six letters of recommendation and a personal statement, so it’s pretty grueling. But I found it really fun because it gave me an opportunity to sit down and focus on what I wanted to do. I don’t think we’re always really given those moments to think about where you’re coming from and where you want to go.

Proudest moment so far:
The moments when I’ve made mistakes and grown from them have been when I learned the most. Whenever I’ve ever had any kind of setback—whether because of my own doing or some outside force I wasn’t able to control—I’ve been proud of my capacity to move beyond it. I’ve had to deal with a head injury I got as a figure skater in high school. Four and a half years later, just being able to get through the day is probably my biggest accomplishment.

Leaders who inspire you:
As far as development experts, I really like the work of Dambisa Moyo, and I’m similarly interested in the work of Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee, who wrote Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. I think they’re leaders in very different ways. I’m also really inspired by people like Christiane Amanpour, Anderson Cooper, and Joan Didion—people who are storytellers.

Best advice you ever received:
It's okay not to have an answer to everything—right now or ever. It's easy to fall into a mindset where you have to perform—to find one concrete answer to the questions that are asked of you. I think it's okay to dwell in complexity and not be sure—to recognize that you still have more to learn.