Student Spotlight: Laura Cuesta


Laura is from Colombia and was a student at WESLI in 2009 and 2010.  Now, Laura is a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin – Madison School of Social Work.  Her current research focuses on the role of public policies in the economic wellbeing  of single-parent families.

Laura also has some very exciting news: one of her papers is going to be published!!!  The title of her paper is The Role of Child Support in the Economic Wellbeing of Custodial-Mother Families in Less Developed Countries: The Case of Colombia and it will be published in the International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family.  So exciting!!

What are your classes like?

I have taken two types of classes, seminars and lectures.  Seminars are small classes (between 10 to 12 people) in which students and instructors meet every week to discuss a topic.  Every week students are expected to read approximately 5 to 6 articles (each about 20-30 pages long) so they can contribute to the discussion.  Sometimes students are asked to lead the discussion.  Assignments for seminars include paper critiques, presentations, and a final paper about a topic on the student’s area of interest.

Lectures are large classes (between 40 to 50 people) in which students are mostly listening to the instructor.  Every week participants are expected to read either a book chapter or a couple of articles on a given topic.  Assignments may include problem sets or reviews of readings for the given week.  Sometimes lecture courses include both midterm and final exams.

What do you like about your university?

The University of Wisconsin-Madison is a top research university in the United States (and the world!).  As a result, I have been able to 1) receive mentoring from outstanding scholars, 2) take courses with renowned faulty, 3) access to countless resources to improve my research skills, and 4) present original work in top research conferences in my field (within and outside of the US). On a more personal experience, I have met wonderful mentors and colleagues that make this experience so much more special than any other thing I have experienced in my life.  You will not believe the awesomeness of the faculty, staff and students at the University of Wisconsin – Madison School of Social Work!

What do you like to do when you are not studying?

PhD students do not get much free time!  But, whenever I can, I like to meet with friends to watch a movie, dine out, or have a drink.  I do exercise every other day at the UW facilities.  I love biking in the summer!

How does life as a college student in the US compare to life as a WESLI student?

Being in a PhD program is definitely much more challenging that being a WESLI student.  However, I’d also say that challenges that I experienced in WESLI were different from the challenges that I experienced as a graduate student.  As a WESLI student, I experienced the difficulties of living abroad for the first time ever, and learning a second language.  As a graduate student, I deal with the challenges related to the training that I need to become a good scholar.

Social Work Building of the UW-Madison campus. Photo courtesy of

Do you have any advice for WESLI students who want to go to college?

Definitely!  Try to avoid talking in your native language as much as you can: the only way to learn English is speaking/writing/reading in English!  You will appreciate very much not having to deal with ESL issues when you are a college student.  You are supposed to perform as well as native speakers, and having communication difficulties makes the learning process so much more difficult than it needs to be.

What are your future plans?

I’m currently in my third year (out of 5).  By the end of the the Spring semester I will be done with coursework, and by the end of the summer I will be a PhD Candidate.  The following two academic years I will be working on my dissertation.  Hopefully, I will graduate in May, 2015!

Tell us more about your paper being published!

My paper is co-authored with Professor Daniel R Meyer.  We examine the extent to which child support is helping custodial-mother families move out of poverty or move closer to the poverty line in Colombia.  Our results show that child support brought out of poverty 32% of custodial-mother families receiving this transfer in 2008.  We also find that child support helps to reduce the poverty gap by about a third.  Comparisons with developed countries suggest that single parents in Colombia are doing much worse than single parents in Scandinavian countries, but about the same with respect to those in some Anglo-Saxon countries like the US.  You can check out more about my research here.

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