Courtney Hillebrecht of HRHA

Courtney Hillebrecht, the director of the Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs program, poses for a portrait inside of her office at Old Father Hall on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Alumni from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are advocating for human rights all over the world, from starting non-governmental organizations in Africa to working at Lincoln nonprofits that fight for equality like Nebraska Appleseed.

These former students are involved in UNL’s Forsythe Family Program on Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, according to HRHA program director and international relations professor Courtney Hillebrecht.

The HRHA Program, which is one of the leading human rights academic programs in the country, is designed to help students grow their passion for human rights and justice. It provides them with hands-on learning experiences, like research, according to the program’s website

David Forsythe, an emeritus professor of political science at UNL, started the program in 1997. Hillebrecht said Forsythe is committed to the idea of making Nebraskan students and stakeholders aware of the larger world.

”Not only are we wanting to introduce students to the idea of international human rights, but there’s a real desire and demand for students to understand how they fit into this larger global picture of human rights, how human rights plays out domestically and how they can be changemakers in their own communities,” she said.

The HRHA program includes the HRHA minor, which focuses on experiential learning, Hillebrecht said.

“That can be while they’re studying abroad, volunteering at an orphanage or working with Lincoln Literacy,” she said. “They’re taking what they’re learning in the classroom — not just our courses but more broadly — and their passion, and they’re putting it together in some sort of experiential learning.”

Unlike other human rights programs across the country, Hillebrecht said UNL’s program focuses on both undergraduate and graduate education. She said the program also provides students with funding opportunities to do research with faculty.

“A lot of the human rights programs across the country are focused on graduate students, or, more often than that, law students,” she said. “What we pride ourselves on is that we are preparing you from day one [as an undergraduate] to have this perspective and toolkit to think about human rights.”

Emira Ibrahimpasic, assistant director and assistant professor of practice for global studies, said the program is interdisciplinary and attracts students of all majors.

“If they are an engineering student and they’re interested in building a new plant somewhere, how does that affect the people who live in that community?” she said.

Ibrahimpasic said she hopes the program will help people understand that human rights is not just a global issue but also a domestic one. 

“This is something that affects us in our daily lives,” she said. “We want to take away the lens from just focusing on human rights abuses as something that happens outside [of the United States], that it also happens in our own backyards.”

Human rights, as a concept, crosses not only disciplines, but fields and political lines, Ibrahimpasic said.

“It’s a topic that is of interest to everybody, no matter what demographic you belong to or where you live in the world,” she said. 

Skills from the HRHA program have helped students with their law school careers and human rights-related work, like helping refugees and human trafficking survivors.

Hillebrecht said she enjoys seeing students’ passions for different human rights topics.

“It might be women’s rights, minority rights, disability rights or refugee issues,” she said. “There’s a whole range of things I’ve learned about from my students, but what excites me the most is their passion and commitment.”

Ibrahimpasic said she loves having an academic program at UNL dedicated to human rights and seeing a growing interest from students.

“I think it says a lot about the current trends amongst this generation of students and where their passions lie,” she said. “Seeing more students interested in human rights gives me hope for what the future will look like.”

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