Fueled by a liberal arts education

On a cold February morning, Sara Curran left her Green Lake home and zoomed to the UW on her bike. Coffee mug in hand, she hurried to meet a former colleague—and promptly smashed into a trash can at top speed. By the time she arrived at the Burke Café to talk about her life and work as an associate professor in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, she was sporting scratched arms but exuding a charming and vigorous energy. Her energy carries over into her work, as Curran is happily affiliated with a cornucopia of UW units—the Evans School, sociology, global health, the Southeast Asian Studies Center, the Center for Global Studies. At the Center for Studies in Demography & Ecology, where she is the director, Curran researches gender, human migration patterns and environment in developing countries. She comes naturally by her international interests.

Born in Beirut, Curran lived in Jordan, Yemen and Mexico. From 1974 to 1977—right before the Soviets invaded and waged a nine-year war against the Mujahideen—she lived in a walled compound in Afghanistan, where her father served as the U.S. deputy chief of mission. After college, she volunteered with the Peace Corps in the Philippines, working with mountain tribes on a reforestation project. Her timing was a tad precarious as she arrived just one week after president Benito Aquino Jr. was shot and killed. She soon found herself uncomfortably caught between the mayor of her village, who thought she really worked for the CIA, and the armed Communist group.

In Seattle, life is a little calmer but being the parent of two teenagers keeps Curran constantly on the go, doing her research and teaching. When she talks about her students, however, Curran’s face lights up. “I’m a big believer in hands-on learning,” she says. She developed a course on qualitative methods that requires students to conduct field work. She also directed a student-led task force on human trafficking. Since arriving at UW in 2005, Curran has established a graduate certificate in Demographic Methods and served as founding faculty adviser for the Jackson School Journal of International Studies. Recently, she and Dr. Jessica Beyer developed an Applied Research Program linking Jackson School seniors with clients in the private sector to demonstrate the value of the Jackson School’s undergraduate training for each organization’s “bottom line.” These clients have included Microsoft, Starbucks, WilliamsWorks, Construction for Change, and Tableau Foundation. Says Curran: “I’m always looking for ways to show the value of a liberal arts education for thinking critically, connecting the dots, and make a practical difference.”