Human Rights Program Changes Lives

Traveling to the sites of historic human tragedies can be sobering. But it also can be life changing when accompanied by careful study and a commitment to social action. That is the foundation of SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Program, which offers a cross-disciplinary minor in the historic struggles and current issues of human rights.

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Tobias, a Holocaust survivor in Vilnius, Lithuania, spoke about his experiences with an SMU human rights study group that visited Nazi extermination sites in the Baltic states. Rick Halperin is at right.

Human rights is a topic that has attracted the interest and support of sisters Gayle and Lauren Embrey of the Embrey Family Foundation of Dallas. During her Master of Liberal Arts coursework at SMU, Lauren Embrey took a human rights class taught by history instructor Rick Halperin. Her interest was reinforced and expanded during a trip to Polish Holocaust sites with a study group led by Halperin in December 2005.

Lauren Embrey shared her experience and impressions with Gayle as the two considered projects worthy of Foundation support. They determined that they wanted to help others experience similar life-changing study and travel, and in 2006 they funded the Embrey Human Rights Program in Dedman College.

“It became apparent to me that an integral piece of historical information was being left out of our usual educational experience – the study of human rights, past and present,” Lauren Embrey says. “I felt a definitive call to alter that established standard and bring awareness to people surrounding these issues.”

In 2006 the Embrey Family Foundation provided $1 million for the first four years of the program, funding student scholarships, travel and development of new courses. In March the Foundation voted to provide approximately $390,000 annually in additional funding for another two years, bringing its total commitment to $1.8 million in support of this program.

“I believe the only way we can stop repeating history’s human rights abuses is to understand the consequences of past violations,” says Gayle Embrey. “By educating young people to the abuses that have existed throughout history and that continue today, we hope to inspire future leaders to be advocates for global human rights.”

Directed by Halperin, the Embrey Human Rights Program is one of the fastest-growing programs at SMU, with 179 students in the pipeline to graduate with a human rights minor.

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This monument marks the site where 27,800 Jews were murdered in Rumbula Forest, near
Riga, Latvia.

The program that started with 39 courses in fall 2007 now offers 70 courses across a wide range of disciplines. It introduces students to the study of universally recognized civil, political, economic, social and cultural human rights, enlarging their understanding of what it means to be a socially responsible citizen of a global society.

Travel to destinations where human rights abuses have occurred is an important component of the program. Halperin leads 30 to 40 people a year to places such as Cambodia, Rwanda, South Africa, El Salvador, Bosnia and European Holocaust sites.

The program also brings human rights scholars to campus for symposia and public forums.

During SMU’s spring break in March, Halperin guided one of his groups through former Nazi extermination sites in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. In August, he will lead another group to Hiroshima and Nagasaki – Japanese cities leveled by atomic bombs dropped by American planes during World War II. Some students who have traveled to human rights destinations have blogged about their experiences on SMU’s Student Adventures website.

Jonathan Richardson, a senior English major and human rights minor who made the December 2008 trip to Holocaust sites in Poland, says he was altered by the experience.

“This trip changes people in a way that no one can foresee, its effects unique to every person,” Richardson wrote. “Powerful is a word that might fall short of trying to describe this trip.”

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