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A summer internship is a rite of passage for many undergraduates. For some, it’s an opportunity to learn the ins and outs of the workplace. For others, like recent College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA) alumnae Skylar Gleason (A.B. International Studies '19; A.B. Political Science '19), it can be a springboard to a dynamic international career.
Skylar is an honors graduate of the Program in International and Comparative Studies (PICS) where, she said, “The international studies courses that I took opened my eyes to a wide range of world issues and inspired me to pursue a career in international human rights.”
But it was Skylar’s eight-week International Human Rights Fellowship with Perseus Strategies in Washington, D.C. that provided the bridge from her coursework to the challenging work of human rights in practice. The fellowship was created especially for LSA students by the Donia Human Rights Center (DHRC) and PICS, in collaboration with the firm’s managing director, celebrated human rights lawyer Jared Genser (U-M Law '01). Genser has skillfully represented some of the most high profile political prisoners in recent history (including several Nobel Peace Prize laureates). Referred to by The New York Times as “The Extractor” for his work freeing such prisoners, Genser's career is the basis for a television show in development with a major streaming service.
Skylar’s once-in-lifetime fellowship at Perseus Strategies eventually led to a full-time postgraduate position there.
“That [fellowship] experience cemented my plan to attend law school and specialize in international human rights in order to access the legal knowledge and avenues necessary to hold human rights violators accountable,” said Skylar.
And it's just one example of the singular opportunities that the Donia Human Rights Center has been forging for undergraduate students at U-M since 2014.
Paving the way
Donia Human Rights Center, housed in LSA’s International Institute along with PICS and fifteen other centers and programs, is a campus-wide forum for intellectual exchange and real-world engagement on human rights among scholars, practitioners, students, and the broader public.
Less than a year after taking the helm in summer 2020, DHRC director Steven Ratner, Bruno Simma Collegiate Professor of Law at the U-M School of Law, announced the creation of new fellowships with the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights in Serbia and the Social Change Initiative in Northern Ireland, as well as a pilot to support a student-initiated fellowship.
Ratner continues a tradition established by the center’s founding leadership of leveraging his own and the center’s strategic international partnerships to craft practical research and internship fellowships with preeminent organizations that are eager to mentor and launch LSA undergraduates into high level human rights work.
“Experiential learning beyond the classroom augments and helps students apply what they’re learning,” said Ratner. “It’s especially useful in a vast field like human rights. Through our fellowships, LSA students learn about human rights career paths and how human rights work looks in practice.”
The center’s founding director, professor of sociology Kiyoteru Tsutsui, developed DHRC’s first undergraduate-friendly human rights fellowship in 2014, the Korea-Michigan Human Rights Research Fellowship, in partnership with the Social Science Korea Human Rights Forum. There are now eight such thoughtfully-crafted fellowships available to all LSA undergraduates via DHRC, providing research opportunities and exposure in high level human rights work. Each, with a trusted partner organization, was tailor-made for U-M students and underscores the center’s approach to revealing the interdisciplinary career possibilities within human rights.
“My time in South Korea offered me invaluable interactions that brought to light what the discourse was in the country on social and political issues all around the world,” said Arwa Gayar (A.B. Public Policy '20) of her Korea-Michigan Human Rights Research Fellowship in 2019. “With my research centering around women as the most vulnerable population to sexual trafficking, I was able to learn so much through the intersection of these women’s genders and nationalities, whether that be as foreigners in South Korea or as citizens.”
An interdisciplinary perspective
Professor Ratner is an accomplished human rights expert. He has served as an expert of the UN Secretary-General to guide the UN's approach to accountability and justice in the wake of two contemporary human rights catastrophes—as a member of the UN Group of Experts for Cambodia in 1998-99 (concerning the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge), and the UN Group of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka in 2010-11 (concerning war crimes at the end of that state's civil war). He also worked for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's High Commissioner on National Minorities in The Hague, and for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva. He’s currently working on a project to promote observance of human rights by foreign investors in their operations in global supply chains.
He’s also a lawyer, but he believes strongly that all human rights practitioners need not be. Human rights work transcends academic boundaries, and faculty affiliated with the Donia Human Rights Center come from across the University of Michigan campus.
“Human rights is a morally compelling field that needs people from all disciplines,” said DHRC Director Steven Ratner. “We work hard to harness the passion of all our LSA students, to show them how they can address cutting-edge human rights challenges in different settings around the world through the lens of their own particular skills.”
Complex and nuanced, human rights issues can best benefit from approaches that combine the perspectives of history, political science, sociology, engineering, law, medicine, the natural sciences, economics, public health, and so much more. One of Ratner’s goals as DHRC director is to encourage more students of the liberal arts and sciences to seek and find a place for themselves in human rights.
“There is a reason the center is part of LSA, instead of in one particular professional school, like law or public policy,” said Ratner. “Human rights work is not, should not be, defined by a particular professional background. Our namesake, Robert J. Donia, is a historian of the Balkans who put his particular knowledge of the region to use as an expert witness in a number of Yugoslav war crime trials, including that of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzić.”
A Better World for All
Thanks to the generosity of Robert J. Donia (M.A. 1974, Ph.D. 1976) and his wife Jane Ritter, the Human Rights Initiative was elevated to the Human Rights Program in February 2016. In October 2016, it became the Donia Human Rights Center (DHRC).
When the Robert and Jane Donia Fund for Human Rights was established to name and support the Donia Human Rights Center, Dr. Donia underscored the importance of the center becoming a hub at the University of Michigan for students, human rights scholars, and experts from all disciplines to come together to advance their work.
“Our faculty in human rights are scattered across departments and fields,” he said. “The greatest need we have is to promote interdisciplinary dialogue and collaboration on projects and scholarship so that the great resources of U-M keep human rights front and center.”
Framing the Conversation
The center has long delivered on its mission to promote a deeper understanding about a wide range of contemporary human rights issues among the U-M community by inviting collaborative discourse. Frequent lectures and panel discussions bring to campus the brightest and most influential human rights scholars and practitioners from around the world. In keeping with the center’s interdisciplinary focus, speakers represent a broad range of professional fields and human rights perspectives.
Professor Ratner noted that one of his priorities in his first year as director—a tumultuous one that included not only a global pandemic that disproportionately affected many marginalized communities, but also nationwide protests following George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s deaths at the hands of police officers—was for the center to lend additional expertise and a different point of view to discussions about race in the United States.
“The United States, in the summer of 2020, confronted one of the most important moral and political issues of our time,” said Ratner. “I believe the center has an obligation to help the Michigan community think and learn about the manifold strategies to address systemic racism, including those that today have not received very much attention.”
Accordingly, race and gender experts Catherine Powell, the former director for human rights on the White House National Security Council, and Yasmin Sooka, former member of the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission, joined Ratner for one of the first DHRC events of the 2020-21 academic year, a panel discussion on "Racism and Race Relations in the United States: What Value for an International Human Rights Perspective?"
Ambassador (ret.) Susan D. Page also discussed the role race relations play in U.S. foreign policy (as well as the unique challenges she experienced in her field as a Black woman) when she delivered the 2021 Donia Human Rights Center Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture. Page was the first U.S. ambassador to the Republic of South Sudan and former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations in Haiti.
A Seat at the Table
A highlight of the DHRC events calendar is its Distinguished Lecture series, which brings to campus renowned scholars and practitioners who have made significant contributions to the advancement of human rights in the world. Some of the past speakers have included political philosopher Leif Wenar, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Michigan native Sheri Fink (B.S. 1990), U-M Law professor Catherine MacKinnon, who focuses on sex equality issues under international and domestic law, and Emory University’s Carol Anderson, who penned White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide.
The center seeks to optimize these visits by providing important opportunities for students from units and colleges across the university to engage in conversation with the speakers. When former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein gave his Distinguished Lecture in 2019, the center facilitated a special event for students to meet with him and ask questions in a small-group setting.
Under the leadership of Professor Ratner, the Donia Human Rights Center plans to continue to grow its programming, audience, and impact. One key goal in the coming years is to expand student support for research on and practice in human rights in the United States and abroad, enabling LSA students to study and practice human rights work while they are still in college.
The center also hopes to support new human rights courses, faculty-initiated scholarly gatherings, and visiting practitioners to expand the footprint of human rights at the university.
Support for DHRC is a long-term investment in the cause of human rights, and helps students enhance their understanding of international human rights beyond the classroom.
“Ultimately, our objective in our work with students is to prepare them for the next step--to help them find placements where they are able to carry over what they’ve learned in LSA and develop human rights careers that make a difference,” said Ratner. “Our fellowship and university partners, our speakers, and our alumni are all committed to enriching our students with their mentorship and expertise.”
Virtual Case Study: 2020 Fair Labor Association Fellowship
LSA senior Phoebe Johnson’s virtual fellowship with the Fair Labor Association (FLA) demonstrates how the center’s fellowships provided rewarding opportunities even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This experience enhanced my understanding of the ways in which the non-governmental sector can pressure firms to engage in ethical business practices, as well as uniquely allowed me to contribute to the promotion of workers' rights and fair labor within the campus community,” said Johnson of her research project examining fair labor within the University of Michigan’s food supply chain. “In my future career, I strive to be involved in the advancement of farm workers' justice and the promotion of sustainable food systems from both an environmental and social standpoint.”
Learn more about additional ways to support international studies through the Program in International and Comparative Studies (PICS) and the International Institute.