Wild Youth

“Growing up in Kenya was the biggest gift my parents could have ever given my brother and me,” says Carissa Western ’08, on being raised by professor Shirley Strum and conservationist David Western in Kenya. “We were on the ground with animals every single day. It was a very different way to grow up.” Still living and working in Africa, Western shared memories of her upbringing:

ON GROWING UP: At home, we were surrounded by wildlife. I grew up knowing what bird made that call and what animal left that dropping. At one point in my teens, I remember thinking, I cannot believe I’m here in the middle of nowhere with my parents on New Year’s when all my friends were at some party on the beach somewhere. Now I look back and think of what an amazing experience that was.

ON PETS: One morning, as we ate breakfast at the kitchen table, our dogs were directly outside the window when a leopard came and took one and ran off with it. There was sadness but also acceptance because I understood, even as a young child, that this is where wildlife existed. They were here first, and we were lucky to be here sharing this space with them. It was a big life lesson in coexistence with nature and wildlife.

ON UC SAN DIEGO: I came to UCSD wanting to be an anthropologist, but I found myself directly in my mother’s shadow. Everybody knew her, so I forged my own career path based on my interest in what drives people, what makes them tick, and why they do the things they do.

ON PEOPLE: Baboons have taught me a lot about people—their social interactions are so similar to what we do. I could see myself in the way that they acted and behaved. When we would sit in the middle of a troop and my mother would explain baboon behavior to us, it helped me to better understand human behavior, too.

ON HER CAREER: The research and community-based work that my parents did inspired me to further pursue academic studies in conflict analysis and resolution. I was always super conscious about how people acted and why they did the things that they did, which led me to look more deeply at the drivers of conflict. I’ve since become a conflict analyst and researcher, focusing on the causes of conflict and violent extremism, its gendered dynamics, as well as working with communities negatively impacted by conflicts around private sector development projects.

Read more about the work of biological anthropology professor Shirley Strum.