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Global Studies Students Draw Attention to International Human Rights Violations

By Gina Myers

April 12, 2021

In their Global Studies Capstone project, Cassidy Alexander, Elizabeth Bucy, Lex Eccles, Lia Lewandowski, Caitlin McElwee and Abigail Young collaborated with students across the globe to raise awareness for Patrick Zaki, a scholar who has been arrested in Egypt.

As a culmination of their studies, every Global Studies major completes a capstone project, from writing in-depth research papers to developing their own mock non-governmental organization (NGO). This past winter term, Associate Head of Global Studies and Modern Languages Rebecca Clothey, PhD, decided to take a new approach by pairing the students with an existing NGO, Scholars at Risk, an organization that supports and defends academic freedom and the human rights of scholars around the world.

“Global Studies is a major that allows for so many opportunities to engage with real-world cases,” says Clothey. “This year students worked with an existing NGO on issues that the NGO is already addressing and conducted research on these issues.”

While this was a daunting task for students in a shortened nine-week semester, they all met the challenge and contributed to raising awareness about the cases of four scholars. Working in groups, the students created websites and other projects.

“It was a scary task at hand to create an advocacy campaign, rather than just studying them, analyzing them or even creating a hypothetical one,” says Abigail Young. “This project held a lot of weight outside of the classroom. With it being a senior capstone as well, it felt like a moment that was a real test of how much we as Global Studies students have learned through our classes and experiences. That being said, it was an incredibly empowering, reassuring and inspiring experience to witness and be part of a team that could forge such connections over the course of just nine weeks.”

Young worked with Cassidy Alexander, Elizabeth Bucy, Lex Eccles, Lia Lewandowski and Caitlin McElwee to raise awareness for Patrick Zaki, a scholar working on his Erasmus Mundus Master’s in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Bologna in Italy, who was arrested in Egypt on a trip to visit his family. The group partnered with Conversazioni sul Futuro, an Italian nonprofit that had done a poster contest for Zaki’s case.

Lewandowski explains, “Conversazioni sul Futuro gave us access to the top ten winning posters. We agreed to hang them up around major landmarks and sent them to other universities across the globe to participate. They requested that we compile a video of our efforts to present to Amnesty International Italy.”

The video was extremely well received and is beginning to take on a life of its own outside of the Amnesty International conference. “Our contacts at Conversazioni sul Futuro told us that our video brought several people to tears,” says Lewandowski. “We are so overjoyed to be able to reach larger and more diverse audiences by making our video available.”

A Little Goes a Long Way

One of the concerns students had with their projects was the impact they could make. Diane Nguyen, who worked on raising awareness for Khalil Al-Halwachi, a scholar of engineering and a peaceful political activist who is imprisoned in Bahrain, says she was initially skeptical about what could be achieved, but her attitude changed while working on the project. Al-Halwachi’s daughter Fatima Al-Halwachi virtually visited the class and offered encouragement.

“Fatima emphasized that no matter how small the impact, advocacy is important,” says Nguyen. “She helped guide us through the project and encouraged us that anything we did would be helpful. A small drop of water still makes waves.”

Photo of people with qr code and text that reads Justice for Gokarakonda Naga Saibaba A sample of the social media images to raise awareness for G.N. Saibaba created by Anika Arose, Miranda Johnson, Lucas O’Connor and Susanna Stoll.

Nguyen worked with Lucy Helgren, Zack Levy-Dyer, Aashka Patel and Chloe Richardson, but it was challenging to find information on Al-Halwachi. Unlike the other scholars being advocated for in the class, there was no existing Wikipedia page for him. That’s when it dawned on the group that creating a Wikipedia page could go a long way in raising awareness and making information about him more easily accessible. The group has submitted their Wikipedia page for review, a process that takes up to four months.

Harry Cushmore was also concerned about what could be accomplished in the case of Rahile Dawut, a professor and scholar of Uyghur folklore and traditions who disappeared in China in 2017. Cushmore, along with Hugh Gomory, Devon Wong and Imani Calloway-Ennis, created a website that covered Dawut’s scholarship, scholar imprisonment in China, living conditions in prison camps, and the larger context of Uyghur genocide.

“As college students in Philadelphia, you can’t really lobby against the Chinese government,” says Cushmore. “But Dawut’s daughter [Akida Pulat] encouraged us to reach out to our local representatives and try to raise awareness here in the United States.”

By collaborating with people across the world on the Zaki video, the students proved how much a few people can accomplish. “Our efforts show that advocacy can go a long way through hard work and perseverance,” says Lewandowski. “If six undergraduates who only have the money in their pockets can raise awareness on a particular case on almost every continent, imagine the change that can be done if everyone stood for something they believe deserves justice.”

Using Your Privilege

For Cassidy Alexander, who worked on raising awareness for Zaki, this project made her aware of her own privileges.

“As a Biracial/Black, Muslim-American woman, in academia and in the professional world, my identities are often the first thing people see—or they are the only thing they see, which can lead to the spread of hatred and violence both in the U.S. and internationally. Although I have fought against unfortunate stereotypes and negativity with regards to my identities, I am also a very privileged person. I have the privilege of being American and studying at a university like Drexel,” she says. “I have the privilege of studying whatever my heart desires without worry.”

Alexander was inspired by the work she and her groupmates accomplished. “I had the fortune of working with such passionate and driven peers that have showed me that even with as little power as we thought we had, we were able to dedicate ourselves to this project in hopes of using our privilege to make a real impact.”

Her groupmate, Elizabeth Bucy, agrees, “When one person is silenced, it is up to the people whose voices are not silenced to stand up and demand justice in any way you can.”

Young adds, “I think we as students are in a special position to advocate for someone like Patrick Zaki and other scholars who have been imprisoned or are at risk, because we have the privilege to not face the same risk. We have the privilege to safely stand in solidarity, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that and put it towards good use.”

Miranda Johnson also felt this call. Johnson worked with Anika Arose, Lucas O’Connor and Susanna Stoll on the case of G.N. Saibaba, a scholar who is incarcerated in India. Through creating a website and social media graphics, the group sought to call attention to his case.

“It’s important to raise awareness about Saibaba’s case because he has been wrongfully arrested, and it has taken both a physical and mental toll,” says Johnson. “At the time of his arrest in 2014, he was partially paralyzed, but since then he has become 90% disabled. He has also caught COVID, so there is real urgency in getting him released.”

Lasting Impact

For many of the students, these capstone projects felt greater than a school assignment. Bucy says, “The fact that someone’s life and freedom is at the center of this project made it so important for us to try and harness all our connections to raise awareness and create something that will live beyond this class.”

Bucy’s groupmate, Caitlin McElwee, adds, “It felt like more than a project to the six of us. We genuinely felt like we were contributing to something important, vital and real.”

Lex Eccles agrees, “For me this project started out as a course assignment, but as it progressed it felt like I was becoming part of a much larger mission that went beyond the requirements. We looked at how we could make a real impact, and I was taken aback by how far our outreach went.”

Not only were these individual projects meaningful, the experience of working on the projects also had a transformative effect on many of the students, who, if not already interested in advocacy, now see it continuing to play a role in their lives going forward, whether through their professional careers or through volunteer work.

Further, all projects created in the class will have lasting impact and live on beyond the semester’s end. The websites and other items are being turned over to Scholars at Risk, which will share the materials with other human rights advocates and students who are also working on these campaigns.

While the projects seek to raise awareness about these particular scholars, they can also inspire others to action on any variety of causes. Young says, “What I hope people take away from our project is that even though it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with the amount of human suffering in the world and feel that an individual’s voice is too quiet or too insignificant to make an impact, when people come together, true movement can happen.”