Urbashee Paul: Her family broke the cycle of poverty, and now she wants to do the same for others

Northeastern doctoral student Urbashee Paul is no stranger to the challenges that stem from economic inequality. Raised in a lower middle class family in Dhaka, Bangladesh, she experienced first-hand the crippling effects of poverty and inequality. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University
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By Khalida Sarwari

News at Northeastern

BOSTON–Raised in Dhaka, Bangladesh, one of the poorest and most densely populated countries in the world, Urbashee Paul’s was a childhood marked by impediments and impermanence.

At barely 5 years old, Paul, who is now an economics doctoral student at Northeastern, witnessed moments that came to define the first part of her life.

portrait of Urbashee Paul

Urbashee Paul. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Women, cradling babies in their arms, would trot to the front door of her family’s home, hands extended, begging for food.

Young children would hop from car to car, person to person, hustling goods on the streets to help their families make ends meet.

In the village of Nalitabari, where her father was from, Paul would often see farmers bearing calloused hands and feet from doing hard labor in the fields without protective shoes and gloves.

The Pauls themselves spent many nights huddled around a hurricane lamp amid pitch darkness, waiting for their power to be restored.

Food and electricity weren’t the only things in short supply in mid-1990s Dhaka; opportunity was just as scarce, especially for girls and women. So when her mother’s job at a non-governmental organization focusing on boosting female entrepreneurship in Bangladesh enabled them to move to Sydney, Australia, the Pauls, intent on giving their daughter a better life, wasted no time seizing the opportunity.

“I really owe a lot to [my mother’s] sacrifice and initiative in moving our family to Australia, where she later gave up her career to support our family and my father’s endeavors,” says Paul.

Looking back, Paul considers this the first pivotal moment in her life. In Sydney, she had a chance to learn English, make friends, acquaint herself with a brand new culture, and taste a semblance of freedom.

“I saw even more of a contrast between what girls in Bangladesh do at the age that I am, and what I was able to do,” Paul says. “My mom would let me ride public buses to my school that was a couple of suburbs away, by myself, and that’s something I could never imagine having done in Bangladesh.”

And then, eight years later, the Pauls were back at square one. The family, which now included her younger brother, Nisarga, sold their house, said goodbye to friends, and migrated to upstate New York so that her father, who had grown tired of working industry jobs, could return to school to receive his doctoral degree in economics. The next five years would see the family living in the basement of an apartment building, and surviving on an $800 monthly stipend.

“I think that’s where the hardest chapter of my life started,” Paul says.

The winters were often brutal, she recalled.

“My parents would tell us not to turn on the heat because electricity racks up, so we would just bundle up in layers of clothes,” she says. “We had no car, so we would walk for miles as a family to get our groceries and walk back in the snow.”

Around this time, Paul, who was now in middle school, would begin to start comparing her life to others’; her family’s finances often precluded her from partaking in extracurricular activities with her classmates, and on weekends, when friends would invite her to go shopping or out to eat, she’d have to decline.

“My family had everything on the line at that point in our lives,” she says, adding that their survival hinged upon her dad’s success in school; they had no safety net.

Within a few years, once her father received his doctoral degree, the family’s circumstances improved again. Paul remembers that at every turn, her parents instilled in her the value of education.

But, because her parents couldn’t afford to pay for her education, Paul’s only recourse was to do well in school and pray for a scholarship.

“Miraculously, I earned a full merit scholarship to Boston University,” she says. “And that’s when my life started changing for the better.”

For the first time, Paul was living by herself in a big city and earning her own income. Motivated by the struggles of her upbringing, she found herself interested in the field of economics.

“I was always curious about the world around me, and why some people can’t break out of the cycle of poverty while others seem to be getting richer and richer,” she says.

Before coming to Northeastern, she worked at a public policy think tank in Washington, D.C., where she learned about the applications of economics in society, and obtained a master’s degree in economics at the George Washington University.

Now under the guidance of Northeastern associate professor Alicia Modestino, Paul is analyzing the impact of private and public summer jobs programs on high school students’ academic and future employment outcomes. She also wants to better understand the barriers to opportunities faced by youth in the U.S. and other countries. Paul hopes that her work will yield solutions to mitigate the economic inequality they may face later in life.

“I feel that this is important because a lot of the crucial steps that brought me to where I am today happened during my teenage years, and that helped me break out of the economic barriers that life threw at me,” she says. “If I hadn’t broken out of these barriers at the crucial age between high school and college, I could have been in a very different place now.”

Paul is also studying how changes in the environment are affecting the farmers who reside in the coastal regions of Bangladesh, a pressing issue in a country that is at risk of being covered by water as sea levels rise due to global warming.

“Part of my research will look into the effect of groundwater salinity on poverty in Bangladesh,” she says. “If I can show that there is a significant negative impact of the rise in groundwater salinity due to sea levels rising in coastal Bangladesh, then I would hope that policymakers would take this into account and try to figure out feasible solutions for affected farmers, such as where they can relocate, and what crops they can produce to adapt to this inevitable climate change.”

Paul was recently awarded a grant from the William T. Grant Foundation, which will enable her to attend academic conferences, purchase datasets for her dissertation, and participate in research training programs.

This month, Paul is helping to organize a conference that will showcase diversity within the field of economics. Titled “DIVERSEecon,” the conference will take place Oct. 30 at 4:30 p.m. in Renaissance Park 909 at on the Boston campus.



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