Educating with impact New seminar course helps protect scholars from unjust prosecution, imprisonment

By Laura McCaffey

Advocating for Academic Freedom

For Melanie Adrian, advocating for human rights is second nature. As the chair of both the Canadian section of Scholars at Risk and Carleton University’s Scholars at Risk Committee, Adrian has spent the last five years fighting for social justice and academic freedom. She believes in doing the right thing: standing up and speaking out for oppressed groups and individuals.

Now, as an Associate Professor of Law and Legal Studies at Carleton University, she hopes to instill this same mindset in her students.

“As an educator, I purposefully design my courses to nativize big-picture thinking,” Adrian shares. “My goal is to make my students aware of the impact they can have.”

That’s why, in 2018, she launched a new course called ‘Academia and Activism: Seminar in Advanced Human Rights Advocacy.’ Through a partnership with Scholars at Risk (SAR), an international network that promotes academic freedom and protects scholars from unjust prosecution and imprisonment, the course marries theory with case studies to empower students to make a positive difference in the lives of real people.

A First for Canadian Post-Secondary

As part of its mission, SAR promotes Student Advocacy Seminars to post-secondary institutions across the United States. These seminars are arranged and hosted by member institutions, in partnership with SAR; local faculty supervise students as they take on one or more cases of scholars facing unfair restrictions and persecution.

In 2018, Carleton became the first Canadian member institution to host a Student Advocacy Seminar: Adrian’s ‘Academia and Activism.’ Twelve-weeks long, the seminar gave students the opportunity to work on capstone projects—SAR case briefs—that had tangible outcomes.

“Our SAR contacts act as resources—they provide guidance and strategy and introduce the students to activists around the world who are working on the same cases,” explains Adrian. “The students learn to make connections, build networks and work collaboratively on a global scale. SAR provides support, but the students really take the lead on the cases. I think that’s why the students were so engaged and so dedicated. They saw the impact they could have, so they worked really hard to try to help the scholars.”

Izzidine El-Mufti, a fourth-year Law and Legal Studies student, confirms Adrian’s theory: “I was never really aware of the power we can yield as students. You think to yourself: ‘I’m just one student, one person; what difference can I really make?’ My fellow classmates and I were moved by the sacrifices and accomplishments that activists and other student groups have made on a global scale.”

As a result of their commitment, Adrian’s students also became the first Canadian group to be invited to SAR’s Student Advocacy Days, a two-day workshop in Washington, D.C. On day one of the workshop, students from SAR’s Advocacy Seminars are brought together to learn about advocacy strategies and best practices; on day two, they are given the chance to put their learning into practice through a day of advocacy on Capitol Hill on behalf of imprisoned scholars.

Two of Adrian’s students, El-Mufti and Sam Turgeon-Brabazon, participated in March 2019.

Sam Turgeon-Brabazon (left) and Izzidine El-Mufti (right) representing Carleton at SAR's Student Advocacy Days in Washington, D.C.

A New Take on Experiential Learning

Academia and Activism is the third experiential learning style class that Adrian teaches at Carleton.

When asked about the importance of experiential learning, Adrian is thoughtful. “Experiential learning is typically focused on helping students to develop real-world skills that make them more employable,” Adrian muses. “In my mind, my role is not to get students jobs. My role is to get them to reflect more critically, to write more persuasively and to think more globally.”

In the context of Academia and Activism, this is especially important. “Students’ abilities to think critically and to passionately persuade is paramount as they participate in these advocacy projects,” says Adrian. “They have to be able to perform research, consider regional implications, assess the impact of current advocacy campaigns and then launch their own campaigns—all of which depends a great deal on critical thinking and persuasion proficiencies.”

‘It’s a Win-Win-Win’

In Adrian’s opinion, the seminar results in a “win-win-win”—for the students, for SAR and for the scholars.

Adrian explains: “The students benefit from a hands-on learning experience. SAR benefits from the students’ expertise and hard work—during the seminar, the students produce reports related to their projects that SAR can repurpose and reference in future advocacy work. And, most importantly, the scholars at risk benefit from having dedicated individuals who are fighting for their rights.

“We were involved with three SAR cases, two of which were resolved by the end of the semester. The students were majorly invested in the outcomes of the cases. So, when the semester ended and the final case was still ongoing, many of the students insisted on continuing their work on a volunteer basis. Since then, they have been tirelessly working on collecting signatures on a petition that would enable the issue to be tabled in the House of Commons.”

El-Mufti, who was part of the group of student volunteers who continued working on the case, says he is proud of his classmates.

"We had been in touch with students from other Student Advocacy Seminars and found out that most seminars are a full year. After our four-month semester ended, we wanted to keep working. We didn’t want to stop until all the cases were resolved. We needed 500 signatures to get our last case tabled in Parliament. I’m proud to say that thanks to the dedication of my fellow classmates, we surpassed that goal, ultimately collecting 550 signatures.”

When asked about what he would say to other students considering taking the class, Ef-Mufti doesn’t hesitate. “I’d recommend it; I’ve already been telling my friends about it. It’s a great opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of human rights issues, amalgamate theory and practice and connect and work with others.

“Dr. Adrian is very passionate and invested. That’s contagious. You’re pushed to work harder because you see how much she cares, and you see the tangible difference you can make.”

Together with a large network of SAR activists, Adrian and her students made a life-changing impact on several scholars at risk. “This class gave us the skills, resources and platform to play our part and make a substantial difference in the lives of these scholars,” says El-Mufti. “With Dr. Adrian’s guidance and SAR’s partnership, we were able to leave the world a better place than we found it.”

Turgeon-Brabazon and El-Mufti with their University of British Columbia counterparts at SAR's Student Advocacy Days.

For more Carleton University community engagement news, including success stories and partnership opportunities, visit the Hub for Good!

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