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Undergrads fight for rights

link to: College ReportThe Human Rights program doesn't shield students from the harshness life holds for many in the world.

Risha Foulkes, AB'99, was so moved by her experience as a 1999 Human Rights program intern that she is now studying female poverty in Mexico and the legacy of human-rights abuses in South America at the University of Cambridge, England.

Foulkes spent the past summer at the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children in New York as an intern through the University's Human Rights program, established in 1997 by an interdisciplinary group of faculty and headed by Jacqueline Bhabha, associate director of the Center for International Studies and a Law School lecturer. The program's goals are to use interdisciplinary research and teaching and collaborations with practitioners to develop new approaches to human rights and human-rights activism.

"The internships enable students to apply the theoretical work they do in their human-rights courses to real-world situations," says Bhabha. "For example, the internships can help students understand what international law can offer to a victim of domestic violence in France or Mexico, or the relationship between fact-finding and political change."

The internships are open to both College and graduate students. Prior to their placement, participants must complete an application, an interview, and at least one quarter of the Human Rights core course sequence, which addresses the philosophical foundations, the history, and the organization of the contemporary human-rights system. The program coordinates the interns' training and provides some financial assistance, generally ranging from $3,000 to $5,000.

In all, 15 U of C students--including seven undergraduates--spent this past summer working for domestic and international human-rights organizations in locales from India to Guatemala. Undergraduate placements included the Urban Justice Center in New York, Physicians for Human Rights in Bosnia, the Majlis in Bombay, India, and the Alianza Contra la Impunidad in Guatemala City, Guatemala. The interns' responsibilities ran the gamut from summarizing domestic-violence court cases to documenting human-rights violations.

Intern Zoila Rendon, a fourth-year Spanish and psychology concentrator, worked in San Salvador, El Salvador, for the Asociación Pro-Busqueda de Niñas y Niños Desaparecidos. Rendon translated information booklets from Spanish into English for the group, which searches for children who have disappeared during times of armed conflict.

"I have never seen such gratefulness in my life," says Rendon. "I accomplished something--I organized part of Pro-Busqueda even in my short stay. I appreciate that they were able to make me part of their world."

Bhabha says the comments of this past summer's interns--in the ten-page analytical papers and five-page questionnaires they are expected to turn in upon their return--have also been positive. Several, she says, referred to the internship as a "life-changing experience."

One student, she recalls, spent her summer working in Kigali, Rwanda, and now plans to return to work for a United Nations organization there. Another, she says, experienced the risk of fieldwork while monitoring the recent referendum in East Timor, fleeing the country on one of the last planes out of Dili.

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