UChicago students reflect on experiences advocating for human rights

Participants in Pozen Center program share advice with prospective interns

One student helped refugees in Miami prepare their immigration applications. One did research to support the development of additions to the Cook County human rights ordinance. Another compiled evidence for a wrongful use-of-force lawsuit against an Ohio prison. They worked in small, local organizations and large, international ones, based everywhere from Chicago to Hong Kong.

All of them belonged to the last Pozen Family Center for Human Rights internship cohort. Members of the cohort gathered on Nov. 14 on the third floor of Ida Noyes Hall to reflect on how their internships (all supported by $5,000 Pozen Center grants) complemented their coursework, deepened their engagement with human rights and exposed them to new interests and professional pathways.

In presentations and question-and-answer panels led by Pozen Center faculty, former interns spoke about the work they did, the challenges they negotiated and the advice they had for future interns about how to get the most out of the experience. Audience members, including members of this year’s cohort, heard direct accounts of what it was like to support human rights with research and with advocacy, from within large bureaucracies and with grassroots organizations.

Zachary Yeoh, a fourth-year philosophy major and human rights minor, spent the summer working at Daly and Associates, a pro bono law firm in Hong Kong, where he helped primarily with immigration cases. 

“I’d been doing lots of theory, and I wanted to look at the possibility of more practical applications,” he said, echoing a sentiment expressed by many former interns throughout the day. “I wanted to see firsthand how philosophical ideas about ethics actually play out in society. I was able to do that, and it was extremely gratifying.”

Preparation for field

The Pozen Center’s human rights internship program, which began in 1998 and has served more than 600 students since, is more than a summer work placement. During the academic year leading up to the internship, students receive guidance about how to find internships, apply for them, and get the most out of the experience. They get training on general professional topics like workplace etiquette and networking, but also on concerns specific to human-rights work, like protocols for working with victims of trauma. 

During their internship, they have check-ins with Pozen Center staff, and upon their return to UChicago, they engage in guided reflection about their time in the field and how it relates to their classroom learning.

Before the student attendees broke for a networking lunch, they heard from Julia Epplin-Zapf, a 2015 Pozen Center intern who now works as a policy analyst in the Cook County Department of Human Rights and Ethics. She spoke about interning at the Latin United Community Housing Association, a tenants’ rights and anti-gentrification organization based in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. 

“The coolest part for me,” Epplin-Zapf said, “is that the work I started in my internship is basically the same work I do now,” helping Cook County residents understand and take advantage of their rights. This past summer, in another full-circle development, she was a host for two Pozen Center interns, who got an up-close look at what it takes to develop and enforce human rights legislation at the local level.

Exploring interests, working for change

Over lunch, prospective interns asked past interns more questions and shared their own plans for next summer. Zach Ashby, a third-year urban studies major, said he hopes to find a placement that helps him explore his interest in the world of historic urban preservation through a human rights lens, addressing inequities in different communities’ ability to determine their own preservation paths.

Daphne Hoang, a second-year human rights and gender and sexuality studies double major, would like to support reproductive justice in her home country of Vietnam. Nora Holmes, a sociology major and human rights minor, said she wants to find a way to improve the quality of life of sex workers on the South Side of Chicago. 

Holmes especially enjoyed hearing about the strategies past interns had learned and developed to deal with regular contact with the details of human rights violations. 

“In my courses on sex work, a lot of the court records and newspaper archives are really brutal,” she said. “It was really encouraging to hear the interns honestly acknowledge that and share how they dealt with it.”

Bridging interdisciplinary scholarship, practice

The internship embodies the Pozen Center’s approach to human rights, which involves a complementary mix of theory and practice. Students absorb scholarly debates about rights, while also learning about the complexities of advancing them on the ground. 

In contrast to many university human rights centers, which are often housed within law and policy schools, the Pozen Center was designed around the idea of integration with the full UChicago academic landscape. This commitment to interdisciplinarity is built into the Center’s course offerings, which approach human rights from multiple angles, including history, political science, philosophy, medicine, humanities, and the arts. And it was on full display at the internship symposium, where attendees included majors in anthropology, philosophy, political science, literature, and more, all eager to take their UChicago education into the world and change it for the better.

Since the 2022-23 academic year, UChicago has been one of the few U.S. universities to offer a major in human rights, recognizing it as a field that students are increasingly interested in pursuing. Human rights majors are guaranteed to receive internship grants, but the program is open to applications from all College students, plus graduate students in the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice. 

This story was adapted from the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights website

Read more about the interns' experiences.