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Letter from the Dean: Human Rights at the Colin Powell School

Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership
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Letter from the Dean: Human Rights at the Colin Powell School

Human rights matter to our students. 

Over the years, I’ve grown more certain that our very best students are mission-driven. They come to The City College of New York not merely to acquire a degree, but to prepare themselves to confront problems that truly bother them. They see these problems dragging at their families and communities and resolve to work toward fixing . 

In this spirit, the Colin Powell School, in collaboration with CCNY’s Division of Humanities & the Arts, and the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at the Center for Worker Education, is building a new curricular initiative offering an undergraduate major in the study of human rights.

Over the years, refugees from Somali civil wars and from Central American violence have taken seats in my classroom. In the years following the violence of Tiananmen Square, my Asian Studies class was suddenly filled with a new kind of Chinese student—not so different from the East German, Hungarian, Czech and other East European activists who would begin to arrive a few years later. I learned of Algerian massacres in the 1990s from students who showed me pictures taken in their hometowns, and now follow a group of current Nigerian students who tweet regularly about what Boko Haram has meant for villages in their country. 

It’s no surprise, then, that these issues matter deeply to our students—who together make up one of the most diverse campuses in the nation—and fuel a resolve to be stronger and more qualified leaders when they leave the Colin Powell School. 

We set a foundation for this initiative by our co-sponsorship of the CCNY Human Rights Forum, launched in 2013, which has already convened 15 lectures with international human rights experts. It has developed a strong following and engaged students, faculty, and community members in conversations that included film lectures, art, and policy debates. Many of those who came to early lectures returned time and time again; scholars and activists who served on our panels would turn up in our audience, and students began to incorporate the series into their semester plans. 

This year, we began to think about how a strong lecture series could more fully engage the other academic activities of our school. We wanted to more clearly unite the various aspect of our work. We wanted lectures to build on specific elements of our research and teaching. We wanted students to clearly see the connections between what happens in our public discussions and the opportunities open to them in the classroom and in our service activities.

The CCNY major in human rights is, at the this writing, making its way thought the CCNY and CUNY approval process, in preparation for an official launch in 2016. Like the lecture series, the major is thoroughly interdisciplinary, with courses drawn primarily from the Colin Powell School, the division of Humanities & the Arts, and the Center for Worker Education (although courses from other units of the college may round out the curriculum).  

We are also, however, mindful that an issue-based curriculum like our human rights major also needs to help students develop career-ready skills. For this reason, our program is built around four separate career tracks, providing specific skills to students interested in different aspects of human rights work. The “writing human rights” track will prepare student for careers in journalism and writing for public audiences, focusing on communication of human rights issues to concerned groups. The “human rights management” track will combine a substantive focus on human rights theory and practice with a series of management classes that should prepare graduates to move into and work within human rights organizations. “Human rights governance and policy” will focus attention on the legal and political framework for human rights work on both the domestic and international levels. The final area of concentration, “human rights theory and research,” will prepare students who plan on becoming an academic or a researcher for an advanced graduate degree program. 

This combination of a meaningful, problem-based focus and a set of skill specific concentrations sets this major apart from many existing courses of study. We hope the major will both galvanize student interest in human rights, but also help them think about the specific skills and career trajectories that will position them for leadership positions in the human rights career field. 

The human rights major represents our first foray into a set of new curricular initiatives designed specifically to define a set of social missions that matter most to our students. Together, they constitute our effort to develop a set of identities for the Colin Powell School, identities that include who we teach, and how we teach, and what we set out to cultivate in our students—but also reflects a set of commitments to a more just, more inclusive, more stable and more prosperous society for the most vulnerable among us.