College Students Can make a World of Difference

Susan - Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Entered on January 23, 2009

College students often get a bad reputation for only caring about partying, and themselves. I have to confess, that as a college professor I often thought this myself. But my attitude changed, when my teaching approach changed. You see, I have become a strong believer in community-based learning. Not because it’s easier to do (it certainly is not), but because students respond so passionately to it.

What do I mean by community-based learning? Well, let me give you an example of a course I teach, called Human rights-Human Wrongs. Students in this course work with our community partner, PIRC (Pennsylvania Immigration Resource Center). PIRC is a non-profit legal organization that works with detained political asylum seekers and torture survivors housed in York County Prison, located in York, PA. Unlike criminal law, in Immigration law, individuals are not given a public defender. So if they cannot afford a lawyer, or are not lucky enough to get pro-bono representation, they may end up in front of an immigration judge and a Immigration and Customs Enforcement attorney pro se – or in other words – on their own to defend themselves.

PIRC and I train the students in political asylum and human rights law. Then, my students in teams of two go to York County Prison to interview their asylum seeker. After multiple visits, they document their asylum seeker’s story of persecution. Simultaneously, they conduct human rights research on the asylum seeker’s country of origin, to provide evidence of persecution. My students have heard it all: Women forced to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM), men beaten on their genitals with rubber batons while being hung upside down, because they professed support for an opposition party, or families threatened with death because they were the “wrong” religion or ethnicity. The countries are varied: from Liberia, Mauritania, Cameroon, Russia, Honduras, and China to Guyana, Nigeria, Mongolia, and Somalia to name a few. All told, my students have worked on 53 cases, helping to win political asylum for 13 human beings.

When working on these cases, students often pull multiple all-nighters compiling evidence, discussing legal strategy, or just processing the awful reality of human rights abuses worldwide. My students and sometimes even their family members and roommates become attached to their asylum seeker. Everyone becomes enmeshed in the raw reality of human rights abuses.

The power of the pedagogy is in its real application. Students could read about human rights abuses world-wide, but to see the effects of it in a young girls eyes, or the scars on her body, is so much more powerful.

Throughout my tenure as a professor, I have found that college students are just like the rest of us – they want to know that what they are studying and doing matters. Students can learn the theories, and study the classic texts but also make a real difference. My students did – with at least 13 lives.