NSF Fellowship

Graduate Research Plan Statement

Racism and bullying are inherently unjust and infringe upon children’s human rights to equal dignity, respect, and worth (United Nations, 1948). According to the 2019 National Crime Victimization Survey, 3.6% of Hispanic student survey respondents ages 12-18 reported being called a derogatory term related to race at school. This statistic rises to 5.3% for Black students, 6.4% for Asian students, and 9% for students of two or more races. Existing research in public health and psychology suggest that this prevalent race-based bullying may have substantial costs for students’ mental health and academic outcomes (e.g. Brimblecombe et al., 2018; English et al., 2016).  

How is interpersonal racism experienced by students shaped by broader political contexts? To investigate this relationship, I will exploit changes to school district election systems brought on by the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, along with 20 years of student-level health survey data. In particular, I will measure the causal effect of switching from at-large school-board elections (where all voters vote on all school board member positions) to district-based school-board elections (where the jurisdiction is divided into geographic subsections that each elect their own school board member) on the prevalence of race-based bullying reported by Black, Latina/o, and other students of color in California.

The California Voting Rights Act of 2001 made it easier for minority groups to sue local governments over election systems that illegally dilute minority votes, such as at-large elections that enable the majority group to dominate elections over minority groups’ votes. As a result, over 200 (~23%) of California school districts switched from at-large to district-based elections due to litigation or threats of litigation under the act from 2001 to 2017 (Silva, 2019). To estimate the causal effect of switching election systems on the prevalence of race-based bullying and harassment, I will implement a dynamic difference-in-differences research design to compare changes in the prevalence of race-based bullying reported by students in school districts that switched from at-large to district-based election systems to changes among students in school districts that did not switch. Regression models will include school district and year fixed effects to account for time-invariant school district composition and quality, as well as statewide changes from year to year. Since the changes to the school district election systems occurred in different years and treatment effects may vary across time, a traditional difference-in-differences model can lead to biased estimates (Goodman-Bacon, 2021). To model and address this potential bias, I will implement the decompositions suggested by Goodman-Bacon (2021) and apply the alternative estimation method proposed by Sun and Abraham (2021).

I will use the California Elections Data Archive to determine the year that a school district switched from at-large to district-based elections and to identify school districts that never changed election systems. For my outcome variable, I will measure the prevalence of student-reported race-based bullying and harassment using proprietary data from the CA Healthy Kids Survey (CHKS), which contains over 8 million student responses spanning 1997-2020. In order to receive state grant money from the Tobacco-Use Prevention Education program, California schools are required to administer the anonymous CA Healthy Kids Survey to 7th and 9th grade students every two years. One of the questions in the survey asks students how many times in the past 12 months they were harassed or bullied due to their race, ethnicity, or national origin. In addition, demographic questions in the survey will enable me to disaggregate effects by race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender as well. I have access to these data through a data use agreement with WestEd and the California Department of Education.

In addition to simply testing the impacts of school-board election systems on bullying, I will also explore the mechanisms of these impacts. One potential way that changing election systems may affect the prevalence of race-based bullying is by increasing the attention given to topics such as racism and bullying in board meetings. To investigate this mechanism, I will webscrape school board meeting minutes and measure the prevalence of terms such as “racism”, “bullying”, and “discrimination” across time. Then, I will apply the dynamic difference-in-differences model to estimate how switching to district-based elections affected the prevalence of these terms in board meeting discussions. In a related application, I will use a hierarchical clustering algorithm to identify groups of similar keywords in the meeting minutes. Then, I will implement a lasso-regularized logistic regression to predict whether the meeting minutes are from when the school district was at-large or district-based using the counts of each cluster of keywords as predictors. This strategy will allow me to identify groups of keywords that best predict whether a school district was at-large or district-based. By comparing these groups of keywords, I can identify differences in the language used and topics discussed by school board members that are associated with switching to a district-based election system.

Intellectual Merit: In existing literature, Beaman et al. (2009) found that Indian villagers who were exposed to a female chief village councilor have weaker gender stereotypes and more positive perceptions of female public leadership. In addition, Kogan, Lavertu, and Peskowitz (2021) find that increased minority representation in school boards leads to gains in minority students’ academic performance. However, no prior literature studies the effects of racially-diverse leadership on the prevalence of discrimination that minority groups actually experience. My proposed research would be the first to provide causal evidence of this relationship by exploiting changes in school election systems. 

In addition, though recent research on the California Voting Rights Act has found statistically significant impacts of changing from at-large to district-based election systems on Latino political representation in city governments and school boards (e.g. Collingwood & Long, 2021; Silva, 2019), there is little to no research on the spillover effects of switching election systems on outcomes outside of politics. According to Omi and Winant’s (2014) theory of racial formation, racial order is influenced by reciprocity between macro-level (such as election systems) and micro-level social relations (such as racist bullying). My proposed study will be one of the first to implement a causal-inference framework to empirically test this relationship. 

Broader Impacts: Fostering inclusive learning environments where students do not face discrimination or harassment is essential to ensuring that all students have access to equal educational opportunity. By examining the linkages between election systems and the prevalence of racist bullying, my research project will help school leaders and policymakers design policies that more effectively address bullying and interpersonal racism in schools. My research project will provide empirical evidence to help inform the design of electoral systems that foster racial equity and minority rights. 


Beaman, L., Chattopadhyay, R., Duflo, E., Pande, R., & Topalova, P. (2009). Powerful Women: Does Exposure Reduce Bias?. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 124(4), 1497-1540.

Brimblecombe, N., Evans-Lacko, S., Knapp, M., King, D., Takizawa, R., Maughan, B., & Arseneault, L. (2018). Long Term Economic Impact Associated with Childhood Bullying Victimisation. Social Science & Medicine, 208, 134-141.

Collingwood, L., & Long, S. (2021). Can states promote minority representation? Assessing the effects of the California Voting Rights Act. Urban Affairs Review, 57(3), 731-762.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2022). Students’ Reports of Hate-Related Words and Hate-Related Graffiti. Condition of Education. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences.

English, D., Lambert, S. F., & Ialongo, N. S. (2016). Adding to the Education Debt: Depressive Symptoms Mediate the Association between Racial discrimination and Academic Performance in African Americans. Journal of School Psychology, 57, 29-40.

Goodman-Bacon, A. (2021). Difference-in-Differences with Variation in Treatment Timing. Journal of Econometrics, 225(2), 254-277.

Kogan, V., Lavertu, S., & Peskowitz, Z. (2021). How Does Minority Political Representation Affect School District Administration and Student Outcomes?. American Journal of Political Science, 65(3), 699-716.

Omi, M., & Winant, H. (2014). Racial formation in the United States. Routledge.

Silva, E. S. (2019). Representation Matters: Descriptive Representation, School Board Election Systems, and the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 (Doctoral dissertation, USC).

Sun, L., & Abraham, S. (2021). Estimating dynamic treatment effects in event studies with heterogeneous treatment effects. Journal of Econometrics, 225(2), 175-199.

United Nations. (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Personal, Background, and Future Goals Statement

My research agenda and motivation is deeply rooted in my experience growing up in a predominantly low-income immigrant neighborhood. My father never graduated from high school, and my mother never had a job that paid more than minimum wage, but they instilled in me the determination, selflessness, and resourcefulness that I apply in my life and research. My parents immigrated to the United States from Vietnam as refugees and my childhood was characterized by our struggles with trying to navigate and build our nascent lives in this country as we dealt with unspoken transgenerational  trauma from the Vietnam War. Despite our own struggles, my parents have always sent whatever financial resources they can spare to help support their extended family and friends still living in Vietnam; they instilled in me a sense of duty to share the resources I have with others and to use my position to help uplift marginalized communities such as my own. I recognize the immense privilege in being able to pursue academia, an opportunity that most people in my diasporic community do not have. Following my parents’ example, I want to use my position to give back through my research, student mentorship, and public policy advisory. By attaining a PhD in Economics and becoming an academic researcher, I seek to gain the skills to develop and complete a research agenda that reflects my deep interest in understanding the needs of and addressing the issues faced by LGBTQ+ individuals and people of color.  

Intellectual Merit

In my adolescent years, science and research was my refuge from the homophobia I faced at school and my family’s financial and mental struggles I faced at home. At the age of 14, I read up on the research conducted by professors at my local universities and sent out swaths of emails seeking an opportunity to take part in their work. Just one person replied to me, Professor Jennifer Prescher, who took a chance on me by letting me work as an assistant in her bioorthogonal chemistry research lab at UC Irvine. Later, she mentored me when I was accepted by the UCI Cancer Research Institute Youth Science Fellowship Program. Though the topics and methods I use have changed, my experience in Prescher Lab trained me in connecting theory to data, the process of scientific inquiry, and the methodical analysis that I have applied across all the different research projects I have worked on in the past 8 years. As I gained experience and agency over the years, the conditions from which I sought to remove myself from became the conditions that I wish to understand and address through my research.

I went on to attend UC Berkeley, where I discovered an interest in economics research, honed my skills in research communication, helped others access research opportunities, and became one of the top graduates of my year as a candidate for the University Medal. In my freshman year at UC Berkeley, I became the first intern of Deep Isolation, a startup co-founded by Professor Richard Muller and advised by several Physics Nobel Laureates that seeks to implement a permanent and equitable solution to nuclear waste storage. I worked on projects to engage with community stakeholders and effectively communicate technical geophysical research to a broad non-technical audience. The skills I gained through that internship would later help me communicate my own research agenda to an education research agency called WestEd, who are providing me access to proprietary data from state-mandated student health surveys that I will use in my proposed research. 

In my sophomore year, I became drawn to economics research because it enabled me to combine my interest in research with my deep passion for addressing interpersonal and systemic discrimination. I was exposed to economics research by working with Professor Susanna Berkouwer to study the relationship between political alignment and energy reliability. Through that experience, I taught myself how to program in R and helped Professor Berkouwer clean and analyze survey data from Ghana. I further developed my skills in economics when I was selected to participate in the University of Michigan Summer Research Opportunity Program (SROP), a program for emerging undergraduate researchers who are underrepresented in their field of study. Through the SROP program, I assisted Professor Jim R. Hines by aggregating and visualizing data to determine how taxation affects net emissions of greenhouse gasses. My research experiences with Professor Berkouwer and Professor Hines taught me how economics can be used to uncover the mechanisms of social phenomena and inform solutions to systemic issues, solidifying my interest and inspiring me to pursue a career in economics research.

During the next few years, I took advanced coursework in economics and accumulated research experience with various professors. For example, I studied the mathematical and statistical basis for the empirical tools of modern economics in Applied Econometrics with Professor David Card, who then agreed to serve as my honors thesis advisor after awarding me an A+. With Professor Zach Bleemer, I applied quasi-experimental models to administrative student data to uncover the causal effects of college major GPA caps. In addition, I assisted Professor Chris Campos with web scraping information on immigration enforcement events to analyze their effects on student outcomes in Los Angeles. 

These extensive early research experiences culminated in my economics honors thesis, in which I applied a generalized difference-in-difference framework to uncover the causal effects of increasing high school math graduation requirements on college eligibility and admission. My research agenda grew out of my experiences as the appointed student member of the University of California (UC) System’s Academic Planning Council and Education Finance Model Steering Committee. In this role, I represented over 280,000 undergraduate students in discussions that paved the direction of the UC system’s enrollment plans and school finance policies. Through my work with the committee, I learned about the heated debate over math requirements for high school graduation and admission to UC schools: while some claimed that  stronger math requirements would increase UC college readiness among students who would not have otherwise taken the extra math courses, others were concerned that these requirements would disproportionately impact marginalized students’ ability to graduate from high school. I became deeply invested in the debate around the requirement, and my honors thesis sought to find an empirical answer. I found that higher math graduation requirements increased the share of students who are eligible to apply for UC and California State University schools. However, they did not increase rates of acceptance or matriculation to those universities, suggesting that such policies were not enough to help marginal students gain access to UC or CSU schools. Completing my honors thesis solidified my interest in conducting research that has the potential to guide policy decisions that affect the lives, experiences, and success of underrepresented minority and marginalized students. 

After I completed my undergraduate degree, I went on to become a Pre-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. Through my fellowship, I have been able to continue working on research projects that seek to address institutional racism and discrimination. I am currently assisting Professor Will Dobbie and Professor Crystal Yang in conducting a randomized controlled trial to test the effectiveness of interventions to reduce racial disparities in judicial bail decisions. My work has given me experience with producing publication-quality results for research papers and with working on a team to manage large projects that involve multiple community partners. Working with Professor Dobbie and Professor Yang on this project has shown me how it is possible to conduct rigorous empirical research with potentially far-reaching impacts on both policy and the personal experiences of marginalized individuals. I hope to apply the skills I have learned to conduct my own research into addressing discrimination in other settings, such as K-12 schools and universities.

Broader Impact

I remember sitting silently through my history class in 7th grade listening to my teacher explain why marriage should only be upheld between one man and one woman. Just two years before, California voters passed Proposition 8 and overturned a state judicial ruling that legalized same-sex marriage. In an environment where religious leaders decried same-sex marriage as the deterioration of moral values and where parents vehemently scorned homosexuality, my peers in school absorbed these beliefs and would often use the term “gay” to ostracize and ridicule others. Homophobia is just one of the many forms of discrimination and interpersonal harm that continue to be prevalent in schools and one that I personally experienced growing up. 

Last year, I began mentoring high school students of color from my local school district and helped them call on the school board to take action on the discrimination that occurs on their campuses. We submitted over 20 pages of student testimonials detailing the racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexual harassment, anti-semitism, and xenophobia that they witnessed and experienced in school. Though the board members had claimed to be committed to addressing these issues since I was a student at one of their schools, their interventions have been insufficient. Bullying and discrimination are dire issues, not just in my local school district, but in schools across the country. Despite commitments from school leaders and policymakers who seek to address these issues, the interventions they implement are often unproven and ineffective. These are the conditions that motivate my current research agenda. 

Through my research, I seek to apply rigorous econometric methods to deepen our understanding of the causes of discrimination in schools and to test the effectiveness of possible policy solutions, such as ethnic studies curriculum and the adoption of policies that require reporting incidences of interpersonal harm at school. One of my primary goals is to generate empirical research that can help inform and drive the development of programs and policies that more effectively address the bullying, discrimination, and harassment that marginalized students face. I also want to conduct research that is relevant to underrepresented communities. In my own experience, I often find that research results on Asian Americans do not generalize to my own community because researchers aggregate data on heterogeneous ethnic communities within overly broad racial categories. For example, Srinivasan and Guillermo (2000) discussed the public health implications of racial/ethnic data aggregation and have highlighted how such practices have hidden the health disparities that Southeast Asian Americans face. In my own research, I seek to develop better data and research practices that normalize the disaggregation of racial and gender identity categories to generate findings that are relevant to minorities that are often underrepresented in research.

None of my goals can be fully realized without the participation of other diverse researchers and stakeholders, and I will also devote my career to supporting the voices of other academics from under-represented communities. I can offer insights from my perspective as a queer Vietnamese American man, but I cannot be the primary voice for what Black, Indigenous, transgender, and people from other communities of color need because I will never fully understand the nuances of their experiences. There is intrinsic value to the perspectives of people from marginalized communities, and I will commit my career to uplifting other underrepresented researchers and fostering the next generation of diverse academics. My commitment to advancing diversity in research continues from my work in high school, when I formed a student organization that connects diverse youth in my Title I school to STEM workshops and other opportunities hosted by local universities and fundraises money to help provide transportation for these students. In college, I was motivated by the research I worked on with Professor Zach Bleemer, which identified the disproportionately negative effects of GPA requirements on underrepresented minority students’ ability to declare high-demand majors, to address the disadvantages faced by many Black, Latina/o, low-income, and other marginalized underclassmen who struggle to declare economics as their major due to systemic inequities in their college preparedness. I worked with Sarah Castro, President of Underrepresented Minorities in Economics (UME) at UC Berkeley, to advocate for action on the issue from the economics department’s leadership and begin building the resources that disadvantaged students need to successfully declare the major. Drawing from my own experiences, I also helped members of UME prepare for and find research opportunities. I plan to continue my efforts to mentor young researchers of color and use my influence as an academic to begin breaking down the systemic barriers that make economics one of the least diverse fields of study. 


Srinavasan, S. and Guillermo, T. (2000). Toward improved health: disaggregating asian american and native hawaiian/pacific islander data. American Journal of Public Health, 90(11):1731–1734

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