MA students talk about why they chose the Centre for Applied Human Rights, what they learned along the way, and where they are now.
After taking a five year hiatus from studying, I was somewhat nervous about coming back to university and starting academic life again. However, any fears were allayed by the welcoming and engaging atmosphere at the Centre for Applied Human Rights. The lecturers, supervisors, and support staff all go out of their way to assist students and their knowledge and enthusiasm is infectious. On the course we’ve studied a range of challenging and practical topics, for example writing our own Universal Periodic Reviews for a country of our choice for the assessment for the Law and Advocacy Module. Practical assessment like this gives us the skills we need when going out into the jobs market, rather than simply writing an academic essay.
The Defending Human Rights Module places students within organisations in York, South Africa, and Malaysia. Working within an established organisation gives insight and opportunities for learning that you can’t foresee, and therefore makes it far more like the real world of human rights practice. Having regular lectures and seminars coupled with this hands-on placement meant that our learning in the classroom was directly translated into practice. Another highlight for me was the Culture and Protest Module offered in the Spring Term. As part of the module students must organise a cultural project from scratch, such as a film festival, a photography exhibition, or a participatory video, and it’s again this practical nature of the course that I find so important. It taught me skills as varied as making participatory videos and using theatre in human rights, as well as leadership skills and team management and communication.
The reason I chose the MA in Applied Human Rights is because of the emphasis on being ‘applied’, and there are opportunities to exercise this at every point of the course.
Johnny Rebours (UK, 2015-16)
When deciding on a MA program I wanted to make sure that it would provide me with both a theoretical basis as well as a practical one, especially since I had previous experience in the field. I believe that a purely theoretical program would not have benefited me as much, and probably bored me. The reason I chose the MA in applied Human Rights is because there was a lot of attention paid to the application of Human Rights which made the discussion of theory more relevant. The modules offered cater to a broad range of interests. The lectures were interactive and highlighted the key debates, while the seminars always led to thought provoking discussions. The lectures and seminars complimented each other well and enhanced my overall learning experience.
Alongside the teaching came the applied component of the program. I have been involved in one project after the other, each drawing on different aspects of the discourse. I worked on a team developing an advocacy strategy for the Travellers living in York, was part of another team planned a Human Rights Film Festival, and now I am working on a human rights indicator project for the York Human Rights City Network. I believe it has made my experience well rounded and has allowed me to work with groups of people or on projects that I would have not had the chance to otherwise.
All in all, my experience with the MA has been a successful one. The program has given me the space to reflect on the Human Rights discourse as a whole, as well as my position within it. Accordingly, I believe it has successfully prepared me for the field.
Mayada Soliman (Egypt, 2015-16)
I was employed by International Alert, a peace building INGO, as a Project Senior Officer within three months of finishing my studies in September 2015. My responsibilities include establishing a local mechanism of mitigating tensions in partnership with the local and affected community living in a multi sectarian region on the border of the endless war occurring in Syrian since 2011.
One of the multiple questions posed to me during the job interview was about my experience and my capacity in peace building within a war torn society like Lebanon, and where civic trust is lacking. Before getting my degree in Applied Human Rights I was an activist and was engaged in many struggle areas, but I was never close to dealing with the issue of civil war and tensions among local communities. Being exposed to various related modules and especially the Transitional Justice module and the placement that took place in South Africa were very significant in enriching my skills and extracting lessons which helped directing me in my current job. First, I had, theoretically, the chance to learn about the multiple mechanisms, intricacies and challenges of peace building in post-war societies (Rwanda, Yemen, Germany, Libya…). Moreover, I’ve learned how deep, impartially and unbiasedly scrutiny is needed in order to well understand the root causes of any conflict, and, then, engage all the concerned and vulnerable sides into this complex process. In addition, and throughout the placement in South Africa, I was so close to a 'success story' that increased my belief in the reachability of building a strong and developed nation after years of oppression and distress. Visiting and exploring the history of South Africa gave me hope and a very reliable answer to the skeptical people who question the possibility of peace. This was my main answer to the aforementioned interview question. Since securing the post I’ve managed three dialogue sessions in which we have succeeded in derailing obstacles and improving the chance of establishing a local mechanism for mitigating tensions that will sow the seeds of a peaceful society.
Rony Al Assaad (Lebanon, 2014-15)
I'm the Programmes Officer at Conciliation Resources, an independent organisation based in London that works with people in conflict-affected areas to prevent violence and build peace. CR has programmes in Colombia, Central African Republic, Kashmir and many other contexts. I work with teams to deliver these programmes, from helping to prepare policy briefs and fundings bids to coordinating their monitoring and evaluation strategies.
The MA course's interdisciplinary breadth familiarised me with a number of fields beyond human rights, such as conflict and development studies, that are key to a complete understanding of peacebuilding. There is a definite sense at the Centre of looking beyond the limits of academia - the field trip to South Africa in the first term and the frequent opportunities to interact with human rights defenders and activists, from York and beyond, really helped ground the coursework in reality. The MA was a great springboard for my career!
David Elliott (2012/13)
I was first exposed to drug users and people living on the streets at the tender age of nine when my parents started a drug rehab centre and a nursing home for people living with HIV & AIDS. Being the youngest in the family, I use to tag along, and the centre became my second home.
During my teenage years, we struggled as a family in journeying with my brother who has been a drug user since the age of 16. Fourteen years of witnessing this has shown me how delicate this matter is and how socioeconomic factors can effect even the strongest of us. It was exposure to vulnerable people as such that prompted me to take up psychology and pursue the study of human behavior.
I soon found my calling in Yayasan Chow Kit (YCK), where I was employed as one of the only two social workers and was promoted to a centre manager. YCK is a nongovernmental drop-in activity centre that provides social services to more than 400 high risk youths living in Malaysia's red light district.
During my years at YCK, the alarming number of children living on the streets prompted me to start and lead the first outreach team working with street children. While trying to keep the best interest of the child at heart, the overall lack of youth-friendly support and services on a grassroots and policy level has been a great stumbling block and sometimes leaves these children with no other option.
Throughout my personal and working life, I have come to realize that my passion and interest lies in working with the most at risk children. I believe that in order to really drive change in the area of street children in Malaysia, emphasis is required on both grassroots and a policy level, working hand in hand. While YCK may have sufficient opportunity for me to gain grassroots experience and exposure, I felt that the avenue for effecting policies, advocacy and research were very much lacking. This prompted me to peruse a higher education in the area of human rights.
I was first attracted to the Master’s course offered at the University of York’s Centre of Human Rights because of its emphasis on practicality. I was always a strong believer that the knowledge of human rights cannot only be learnt through books but involves a much more organic approach such as through experience, interactions and discussions. The Centre not only ropes in lecturers with years of experience in various human rights issues and ground work around the world, they also hosts a number of human rights defenders each semester. I always enjoy the unconventional teaching methods, and the lecturers’ willingness to encourage constant class participation. There is so much to learn from a room full of students and defenders who come with different experiences and background in human rights. I absolutely love the interactive environment which makes classes fun and entertaining, and always something to look forward to.
The placements in South Africa are definitely the most anticipated event of the first semester, and probably the most talked about event for the rest of the year. It’s hard to sum up what the best two weeks of one’s learning life can teach. My placement managed to challenge my core values and beliefs that I had been holding, but at the same time it allowed me space and experiences to then affirm it.
Nights were the most exciting as we huddled around and shared stories about our day. It was almost like I was gaining four different placement experiences other than my own. If planned well, the placement does not have to be all work and no play. I managed to do a few things that have been long on my bucket list. Most importantly above fun, I valued the time I spent together with my supervisors and group mates. For the first time in three months since I first arrived in York, I finally felt less home sick. Now that the buzz is over and we are no longer in Cape Town, I still look forward to meeting up for movie nights, afternoon coffee, stay overs, dance nights and game nights that has now become part of our MA group’s tradition. The placement in Cape Town has indeed brought me abundance, but I also gained equally valuable experience and knowledge from the relationships that I nurtured with fellow students and supervisors.
For those of us who are interested to learn more about other areas of interest, there are tremendous opportunities to join in events organized by other departments. The Centre also hosts many talks and events on human rights related issues from around the world. The Human Rights Festival that is organized by the Centre is a great opportunity for us to engage in creative expressions. This year, one area that interests me the most is engaging in storytelling with children on the history of chocolate in York by infusing human rights elements in the stories.
There is never a dull moment at University. Other than being involved with the Centre itself, the University offers many opportunities to interact with other students from different departments through organized events and clubs. My classmates and I take part in surprising activities that interest potential human rights defenders such as zumba classes, salsa nights, outdoor society, art class, drama class and many others. I also spend time involving myself with activities organized by my college. Getting to know people living in the same college can be very useful when I am particularly home sick.
It’s now 6 months away from the end of the course, the idea of leaving my new found life is heart-breaking. Here, I have found knowledge and experience that will help me make a change in the world, and friends that will make a change in my world. I know I am not alone, as I have heard this many times before from my other classmates, that joining the Master’s programme here was the best choice that I could have made for myself.
Katrina Arokiam (Chevening scholar from Malaysia, 2012/13)
Dear New Student,
My name is Laurie Jones. I am from the United States with a background in theatre and psychology. I came to York, like most of the people on the MA, without knowing anyone. It was both exciting and intimidating, but my classmates made York feel like home straight away. The course allows you to think about human rights through your particular background, so I have been involved in some artistic projects through the Center which has allowed me to interact with the human rights defenders regularly. Also, because of the work involved on projects from the placements in South Africa, I spend a great deal of time with my group working on class assignments, and that truly couldn’t be better! Like many other international students, I have been very interested in exploring the UK. Often on weekends, some of us will explore different cities close to travel by train and take advantage of being in a new place with a new culture. Below is an example of a week of my life as an MA student. Weeks often vary, so there are many new experiences, but I hope this gives you an idea of what to expect.
On Monday, I don’t have any classes, but it’s the day that my group from South Africa get together to work on things for the week. We have a defending assignment due on Wednesday where we have to convince our project partner to use our plan to build capacity. The assignments are really applied. Others include writing a press release, creating a fundraising proposal, or planning a workshop. Today we worked hard on our output, brainstorming for a few hours and coming up with a way for our NGO to collaborate with a local children’s group. After working for a few hours, my group is normally very hungry, so we scout the city for cheap but delicious food.
My Women Citizenship and Conflict class is super interesting, and as 50% of our mark we have to do a presentation. It’s really great because you can get feedback on your topic and then put it into your essay. Today, I am doing my presentation on Maternal Mortality Rates in Sierra Leone. I am passionate about this topic, and part of that has to do with our field trip to South Africa. My group got to work with STEPS, a documentary film company in South Africa. They produced a film, called Four Born, or Welcome to the World. It opened my eyes to the extreme disparity in women’s health care worldwide. I was really pleased with the presentation on Tuesday, and many of my classmates also gave presentations on interesting topics.
After class, I went to the Defender’s Talk. The Centre hosts human rights defenders from around the world and every other Tuesday one or two of them give a talk about their experiences. I have missed all of these this term because they conflict with my class, which was a total bummer, but today’s time was moved back. My classmates and I run to the Centre to hear the talk. We are a few minutes late and the room is packed with people from the University and the community. Dina and Varnetta both talked about Women’s Rights in their countries. It is so amazing and empowering to hear them talk.
We went to our Defending class and presented our ideas on capacity building. It went really well and we received helpful feedback. We only have a few defending classes left now, and we are all grieving about the idea of not seeing each other every week. We have really bonded as a group.
My classmate Marta and I go to Zumba classes through the university, so after class we get on our dancin’ shoes and head over to James Hall. Zumba has been really good for us this year. Human Rights is a wonderful subject, but certainly sometimes it can be emotionally overwhelming. It’s really important to have a balance between worrying abut major world problems and having a fun time with your graduate degree. Zumba has been a really fun activity.
On Thursday I have my Cultures of human rights practice class, which has been my favorite class all year. We discuss how aspects of art and culture affect human rights. Today we talked about the responsibility of writers. Cultures is such a wonderful class, in that there aren’t always agreed upon answers, with each other or with yourself. I truly believe in the power of art and its ability to create empathy and change in our world. There are so many things to consider when making art that comments on human rights, but our professor made a wonderful point in another class. We shouldn’t let all of these considerations deter us from making the connection between art and human rights, we should use this knowledge to empower us to make good responsible choices as practitioners. I normally feel really inspired after leaving this class.
After Cultures I went to a Spanish class with my friend Marynka. I am trying to learn Spanish but I am finding it challenging. Marynka suggested just sitting in her class and seeing what I can pick up. Surprisingly I did better than I thought. There was a moment when I was understanding EVERYTHING… when she was speaking in English. I shall continue to work on this!
Friday is my day off. Since I have a really busy weekend, I decided to do groceries and errands today. I also like to go into town and get a coffee and do some reading. The city of York is so nice. There is so much history and life to the city. The old cobblestone streets and buildings create a great atmosphere. Fridays are usually my day to soak that in.
Today I went to the International Women’s Day event called, Women on the Front Line. There were human rights defenders and students talking about their experiences with Women’s Rights. It is always so inspiring to see these women talk and the hard work that was put into the event. I filmed most of the event to use for the short video a fellow student and I are making for the website. The hard part will be editing, because there were so many amazing quotes that we could use!
In the evening, one of my classmates was singing with a quartet. Needless to say, we all had to go and support him. It was a very inspiring day followed by a night of great friends.
My friend Marit and I joined the hiking club at York. A warning to a foreigner: hills can be as steep as mountains. We loved the day of hiking…well we loved the way down. It has s been a wonderful way to see the British countryside. Most of the hikes aren’t as intense as this one. Sometimes they go to gardens or Victorian houses. Today we went to the Yorkshire Dales and challenged ourselves. Very fun! After four hours of hiking, I slept like a little baby. I’m super ready for next week!
I hope you found all of this helpful, and that you get a sense of what it’s like to be at the University of York!
Laurie Jones (USA, 2012/13)
MA students 2012-13, Laurie (bottom left) and Katrina (bottom right)