“I was hooked from Day One.” Karly Zrake ’18

Karly Zrake’s degrees fulfilled her lifelong dream to “be the change you want to see in the world.”

Story by Denise Gee

Karly Zrake came to SMU from her home in San Diego four years ago for one reason: SMU is one of only a handful of universities that offer an undergraduate degree in human rights.

She was already discovering her life’s passion at age 7, when the second-grader and her mother developed an educationally enriching program for students with special needs. By eighth grade, Karly was raising money that would allow students with special needs to attend therapeutic music camps. And by high school, she was campaigning against bullying.

When Karly collected B.A. degrees in human rights and anthropology from SMU in May 2018, it was obvious that following her dream delivered more than a diploma: Her time at SMU earned her membership in six honor societies, four major scholarships and fellowships, and leadership roles in a diverse mix of student groups.

Oh – and she was elected 2017 Homecoming Queen. She also received the highest honor the University can bestow upon a student, the “M” Award. But if you ask Karly, her crowning achievement was engaging in the empowering experiences offered by SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Program.

Karly’s kudos included being elected 2017 Homecoming Queen and receiving the “M” Award – the highest honor SMU bestows upon a student for academic excellence and service to others – but the real crowning achievement, she says, was being a part of the empowering work of the Embrey Human Rights Program.

She first visited SMU as a high school student to learn more about the Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences program’s curricula and transformative study trips. “I was hooked from Day One,” she says – despite feeling that the weather was conspiring against her that miserably cold, gray, rainy afternoon.

“But I’ll never forget how much sunshine radiated from nearly everyone I met,” she says. “I couldn’t believe how friendly and polite everyone was, and how the professors seemed genuinely interested in my future. I instantly felt at home – and knew I wanted to be here.”

SMU offered her a partial scholarship for academic excellence, but Karly’s single mom was already working two jobs to support her and her brothers, and the last thing she wanted was to saddle her with more debt. But Karly’s mother, Jana, having seen her daughter’s elation over the human rights and anthropology programs and its leaders at SMU, encouraged Karly to do everything possible to make the opportunity happen. The family, after all, had overcome even greater obstacles through hard work, magnetic optimism and spiritually fulfilling volunteer work.

“I’ll never forget how much sunshine radiated from nearly everyone I met. I couldn’t believe how friendly and polite everyone was, and the how the professors seemed genuinely interested in my future. I instantly felt at home – and knew I wanted to be here.

After starting classes at SMU in 2014, her family’s “we can do it” equation kicked into high gear. While earning superior grades in her human rights and anthropology studies (focused primarily on gender and race), Karly was actively joining and networking within key student organizations and applying for every possible scholarship and job that would help her succeed.

She landed a role as the Embrey Human Rights Program’s first student worker. About that time, the program was planning its first “America West” trip, a 10-day multi-state exploration of Native Americans’ past and present human rights struggles. Karly offered to coordinate the entire trip.

“Though we were initially reluctant to trust a first-year student with such a major project, it had become pretty clear to us that Karly was able to get things done well and quickly,” says EHRP Associate Director Bradley Klein. The trip’s ultimate success, he says, proved that students have more ability than they are given credit for. Karly’s takeaway from the experience? “That the victor writes history, making it our duty as human rights advocates to share the other side,” she says.

“Having a human rights degree is incredibly marketable. Organizations are looking for people with high levels of cultural intelligence and community-work experience to help them excel in a more globally connected, socially conscious world.”

“When I tell my friends that I’m studying human rights, the first thing they say is, ‘That’s a major?’ Then when I tell them what we’re learning and the difference we’re making, they just think it’s so awesome, and that it’s something that really needs to spread. SMU is one of seven schools that has a human rights undergraduate degree program, and that is so unique.”

In 2015, Karly earned another “first” when she was named the inaugural recipient of the Santos Rodriguez Memorial Scholarship, funded with support from Dallas’ Latino Center for Leadership Development. The endowed scholarship pays tribute to 12-year-old Santos Rodriguez, who in 1973 was killed, Russian roulette-style, by a Dallas policeman hoping to coerce a confession from the boy for a petty crime a later investigation found he didn’t commit. The incident remains one this country’s most troubling civil rights acts of police brutality.

Karly has racked up even more accolades, honors and life-changing experiences, including a travel grant to go on the human rights program’s cornerstone “Holocaust Poland” trip, and a visit to South Africa to undertake a gender-focused Engaged Learning research project.

Calling her “a natural leader,” Klein credits Karly for attracting “a wider array of students to the program and starting a mentorship project connecting first- and second-year students with third- and fourth-year students,” similar to a program offered by her sorority, Alpha Chi Omega. “She’s truly been at the vanguard of our fast-growing program’s vibrancy,” Klein says.

“Karly is a natural leader – and a steady force for good,” says SMU Embrey Human Rights Associate Director Bradley Klein, her Engaged Learning project mentor.

Though Karly will be missed, Klein says he is happy to know such “a steady force for good” will be continuing the program’s mission in the years ahead, when she hopes to one day become a college professor and teach human rights courses.

“I now know my main purpose in life is to help people by educating people,” says Karly, who says her time at SMU has left her “feeling confident and comfortable with myself and my abilities.”

In the meantime, “having a human rights degree is incredibly marketable,” Karly says. “Organizations are looking for people with high levels of cultural intelligence and community-work experience to help them excel in a more globally connected, socially conscious world.”

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