Zillur sees her policy degree as the bridge connecting her interests in activism, research, and advocacy.
Headshot of Umama Zillur
Umama Zillur

Born and raised in Bangladesh, Umama Zillur grew up in a family of economists and political scientists which, she said, made pursuing economics as an undergraduate a natural path.

After graduating from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, with a degree in economics, Zillur moved back to Bangladesh, where she worked as a research associate at Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC). “My work there focused on economic and urban poverty research and policy as well as advocacy.”

While at PPRC, Zillur was also growing and building her own organization, Kotha. “Kotha works on root cases of gender-based violence in Bangladesh,” she said. “Kotha is not exactly a traditional nonprofit organization but more of a community feminist organization. We work on projects spanning social and legal advocacy, education, and broad feminist movement building.”

Zillur also helped found a major feminist alliance in Bangladesh, the Feminists Across Generations Alliance, which organized mass demonstrations in Bangladesh in the anti-rape movement in 2020. “I had one foot in activism and another in research and policy advocacy,” Zillur said, “and studying public policy was beginning to feel like the bridge that connected those two—and a way for me to have the most significant impact.”

Graduate school, she said, seemed the next logical step. “I needed some formal training in the policy space as well as some guidance and mentorship,” said Zillur. “I wanted to feel really confident going into this next phase, playing a role in moving things forward and shaping society in Bangladesh.” Initially drawn to Harris by the University of Chicago’s strong reputation as a policy and research school, Zillur was impressed by both the academic rigor and the focus on social impact that Harris emphasizes. “Compared to the other policy schools, Harris had the rigor, the environment, and the people who were asking the questions I was interested in,” Zillur said.

Zillur’s experience working with issues related to gender-based and sexual violence in Bangladesh also drew her to The Pearson Institute, where she is currently a Pearson Fellow. As a Fellow, Zillur secured a research assistantship with Assistant Professor Anjali Adukia, who works with the Messages, Identity, and Inclusion in Education Lab, which explores how gender and race representation in textbooks impacts students’ educational outcomes. “Pearson has been invaluable in providing access to these incredible opportunities with leading scholars and thought leaders,” Zillur says.

After graduating from Harris, Zillur hopes to return to Bangladesh to further develop and continue the work she’s started. “I would like to take the skills that I learn at Harris and expand on the work that I’ve done with Kotha. I want to become a person who is a key player in Bangladesh’s policy landscape and across south Asia,” Zillur said.