Scholar Spotlight | A Student’s Push to Make SMU’s Campus Stronger

scholar spotlight david shirzad
David Shirzad at a meeting with the Tower Scholars Program in Washington D.C.

HCM Tower Scholar and Student Body President David Shirzad has dedicated his time at SMU to making the school a better place. He’s been a Peruna handler, a member of the Mob (a group of high-spirited students guaranteed tickets to men’s basketball games), a student representative to the Board of Trustees and more. His latest mission is to give students more opportunities to have their voices heard. For this month’s Scholar Spotlight we talked to David about his time at SMU and what advice he has for younger and incoming scholars. Continue reading Scholar Spotlight | A Student’s Push to Make SMU’s Campus Stronger

Scholar Spotlight | Jump-starting political organizations on campus

scholar spotlight Drew Wicker
HCM Tower Scholar Drew Wicker speaks to his congressional district at the 2016 Texas Republican Convention.

For this month’s Scholar Spotlight we interviewed SMU Senior and HCM Tower Scholar Drew Wicker about his political activism on campus. Wicker is majoring in finance and plans to attend graduate school after graduating from SMU in May.

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Scholar Spotlight | Why I go on Mission Trips

HCM Tower Scholar Brian O’Donnell has gone on three mission trips to Mexico and South America. Most recently he traveled to Mexico City over fall break and worked with an organization called Hope for the Poor. The Tower Center sat down with Brian to hear about his experiences.

Tell us about working with Hope for the Poor.

Scholar Spotlight Brian ODonnell
HCM Tower Scholar Brian O’Donnell in Peru.

Hope for the Poor, founded by Craig Johring, works with three main communities in Mexico City.

One is a community living in the city dump —
it’s a place of last resort for families if the father doesn’t want to turn to criminal activity to make money. The people living there scavenge for things they can sell. Craig goes there and brings food and sets up soccer for the kids.

Another of the communities is homeless people living within a 10-block radius of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which is the main tourist attraction in the city. Craig also has a food cart for the people there and we helped distribute food to them. He keeps a list of all of the homeless people around to make sure that if someone disappears he can find out what happened to them.

The third group lives at a women’s shelter that’s hardly even a shelter. It’s a state-run operation, and it’s basically a place where they round up anyone who is homeless so that they’re not on the street. Craig is the only person who visits the shelter from outside of the government and he brings basic things that the women normally wouldn’t have access to like shampoo bottles. He also talks to them since they don’t ever have people visit them.

We spent a day at each of these communities and tried to understand these people’s lives. It was really eye-opening.

Continue reading Scholar Spotlight | Why I go on Mission Trips

Scholar Spotlight | Getting Students Involved in the Fight Against Human Trafficking

The Tower Center interviewed HCM Tower Scholar Isabelle Gwozdz about her senior year practicum as an intern with the Embrey Human Rights Program and her involvement in establishing the SMU Chapter of the Student Alliance Against Human Trafficking. Gwozdz is majoring in political science with minors in history, French and English, and will graduate in May.

Tell us about your experience with the Embrey Human Rights Program.

It’s been pretty awesome. I’m not a human rights major or minor, but it’s something I’ve been interested in and so I thought it would be cool to have that experience for my practicum placement. I’ve been focusing on human trafficking because the Human Rights Symposium in September featured people from the Dallas area who had been trafficked. Because that was my first big event with the Program, I continued to focus on that issue for my practicum.

What are some of your responsibilities?

My efforts are focused on how to connect with the student body. Usually the only involvement the Human Rights Program sees is from students majoring or minoring in human rights, so it’s been hard for them to break into different groups.

We also founded the SMU Chapter of the McCain Institute’s initiative to end domestic human trafficking. They have chapters on college campuses nationwide. It’s been really exciting and also a lot of work to get off the ground.

What about that first event drew you into the issue of human trafficking?

I attended the survivors panel. They had four local women come speak about their experience with human trafficking and it was really interesting to hear them. One of the women, which is what really hit the issue home from me, was trafficked to college campuses. She was trafficked for fraternities, which is so terrible. That’s when I realized that this happens on campuses so it needs to be my focus: How to get the campus involved in anti-human trafficking. That was the “aha moment” for me.

What do you hope to accomplish with the SMU Student Alliance?

The goal is to create a lasting presence on campus. This semester we are trying to secure our status on campus and expand our membership.  Next semester we are going to start having events. We will have a Human Trafficking Week and we’re going to invite survivors to come back and talk specifically to the student body. We want to do an action like visit a women’s shelter or make blankets or something, and we also might screen a documentary. I’m excited because even though my placement is almost over, I’ll get to be a part of that next semester.

What was your favorite part of the Tower Scholars Program?

Scholar Spotlight Isabelle Gwozdz
HCM Tower Scholar Isabelle Gwozdz with Texas Rep. Kevin Brady.

I really enjoyed our trip to D.C. That’s when I feel like my cohort really bonded. Before I felt like we were class friends, but after that trip and this semester, even without a class, I see them more because we go out of our way to see each other. That trip was an incredible experience — and it was my first exposure to that world. We sat down with Congressmen Pete Sessions and John Ratcliffe, and then I ended up going back and interning on the Hill that summer. It inspired me to apply for internships.

We met with so many people and they were on all different sides of the policy. It was so cool to see how many people are involved in the policy-making world  and we didn’t just have one perspective, we got to have all of their perspectives, and we were actually there with them.

What do you hope to take with you from the program?

Already it’s taught me so much. It’s a general life skill to take what you learn in a classroom and actually apply it. The Tower Scholars Program has really taught me how to use everything we learn in the classroom and apply it in real life situations. Even if I don’t go into policy, that set of skills I can use in whatever field I go into.

Scholar Spotlight | Connecting communities in Texas

bringing Japan's high speed rail to Texas
Fairooz Adams asks a question at an SMU Tower Center lecture.

Highland Capital Management Tower Scholar Fairooz Adams believes in using local politics to shape a community. Adams ran for local office when he was 20 years old, and is now carrying out his senior practicum with Texas Central Partners to bring high-speed rail to Texas and revolutionize the way cities are connected in America. The SMU Tower Center sat down with him to discuss his experiences and his goals.

You ran for local office in Lewisville, Texas, as a sophomore at SMU. Tell us about your experience.

I’ve been involved in local politics around Lewisville, where I’m from, since I was 15 years old. I launched a petition to stop my high school class from being split into two different classes, and we were successful — since then I’ve worked on four campaigns. When I was 20 years old, I thought that if I wanted to do something meaningful then I could go back to the community and run, so that’s exactly what I did. I was worried people wouldn’t take me seriously, but I was pleasantly surprised that wasn’t the case. Many people were enthused about my campaign and were supportive; we out-fundraised our opponent and that was a big success. In the end we came up short, but it was a good learning experience.

What did you take away from your campaign?

It’s very important to involve people in the local community in your campaign because it gives them a stake in your success, and it’s also very important to connect with people on a gut level. At the end of the day people vote with their guts, and you need to know whether people believe in you or not. You also have to genuinely care about your community. Our campaign wouldn’t have been as successful if I hadn’t been consistently involved since I was 15.

Let’s switch gears to what you’re doing now. Your research project for the Tower Scholars Program is focused on bringing high-speed rail to Texas. What have you found so far?

I’m looking at whether high-speed rail would be able to connect different communities so that places with high economic activity can be connected to places with a surplus of labor. The idea came to me when I read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. He makes the argument that opportunity has left these communities behind and now they’re impoverished. The people there can’t afford to move and don’t want to. So what if you could connect these places to economic centers?

Dr. Hiroki Takeuchi and I interviewed people from several industries while we were in Japan (through the SMU-in-Japan study abroad program) — Central Japan Railway Company, Japan Airlines, J-Air, Toyota — to look at how those companies compete against each other and how they function. I learned there is a substantial degree of competition between the industries and not a lot of cooperation.

What was it like to ride the shinkansen in Japan?

I rode the train from Osaka to Tokyo. It was the smoothest train I’ve ever been on. I’ve taken DART, and it just does not compare in any way. It’s like being in an airplane, but without the noise – it’s so smooth. I couldn’t tell we were going 220 miles per hour. It accelerates and decelerates so smoothly, it’s amazing.

How has being an HCM Tower Scholar affected your college experience?

I’m very happy with the Tower Scholars Program. I don’t think I would be interning at Texas Central Partners if it weren’t for the Program and Texas Central Partners is an amazing place because it has a Silicon Valley feel to it, like a startup, but at the same time it’s a big project with a lot of funding behind it. It’s the best of both worlds because you’re doing something real that’s already big and important, but at the same time it’s still kind of a startup.

I’ve also met incredible people through this program, people who really care about America and our politics and making our country better.

Scholar Spotlight | What I learned visiting prisons in the Deep South

Nine days, seven states, eight hotels. Highland Capital Management Tower Scholar Grace Caputo, class of 2017, traveled with the Embrey Human Rights Program to tour death row prisons across the Deep South in August. She now has an internship with the Meadows Foundation Health Policy Institute. Caputo is majoring in political science and human rights, and minoring in law and legal reasoning; she will graduate from SMU in December. The Tower Center sat down to talk with her about the tour and internship.

HCM Tower Scholar poses with John Thompson, a member of Witness to Innocence. Thompson served 18 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, 14 of which were on death row, before he was exonerated. Thompson died of a heart attack earlier this month.

Tell us about your experience on the death row tour.

It was pretty exhausting because every night we had to move. What was cool though, is that we got to work with Witness to Innocence, an organization of death row exonerees. In each state, even if we didn’t get to see the prison facilities, we talked to someone who was on death row in that state. We also went to different law firms that work on prison conditions and with inmates on death row who can’t afford counsel. It was a really eye-opening experience. I had never been in a prison before; like most people I had no reason to be going to a prison.

What was it like to be in a prison?

It was interesting to see how the prisoners lived — most of the prisons are not air-conditioned, which was really crazy. I was sweating; I couldn’t imagine being in that environment for an extended period of time. It opened my eyes to a lot of the corruption that goes on in the trials, and how the prison system is more for profit than rehabilitation, which I didn’t know much about. A lot of the Witness to Innocence people had similar stories. They either had really bad public defenders or they had prosecutors that withheld evidence or did other crazy things. I didn’t know it was that bad.

What was it like to talk to people who were once on death row?

Some of them have come back from it and are really happy with what they are doing; they’ve moved on. Others, you can see it’s taken a toll on them. It was sad to see. If you take away years of someone’s life, and they live in those conditions for something they didn’t do, it’s sad to see how they come out. Some are depressed, or smoking all the time; one man had trouble walking and used a cane. They were young when it happened — they lost their young adult years, which was sad to see.

Why did you decide to have this experience?

Since coming to SMU I have changed my view on the death penalty; now I’m really against it. Before college, I thought I could understand why in some cases it might be an acceptable punishment. The human rights program opened my eyes, moral arguments aside, to the inconsistencies and biases in the system, and to how inhumane it is.
I thought the trip would be interesting. I think prisons are interesting in general because they’re full of the people no one thinks about. People think, “Who cares? They committed this crime so it doesn’t matter how they’re treated.” I’m hoping to at least do pro bono work with this issue after law school so I wanted to see it for myself.

The driving entrance to Louisiana State Penitentiary.

What struck you the most while you were on the tour?

When I went to Angola (Louisiana State Penitentiary) it was like modern-day slavery. They make the inmates work for the first three years in the fields. Unlike other prisons we visited, at Angola I noticed right away that most of the prisoners were African American. They were doing field work and the officers were on horses with huge guns — it looked like slavery. They work eight hours a day and are not paid the first three years.

I never thought about inmates getting paid for their work, but these prisoners are making our license plates, in Texas they make our car tags, and they make highway signs. I think it’s important they get some kind of compensation.

Tell us about your internship.

I am working at the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, and specifically I am working on the Caruth Justice Project, which works within Texas jails to improve mental health both before inmates arrive in jail and once they’re there. We are pushing to have a mental health expert on call for 9-1-1 suicide calls. Also, if the 9-1-1 call requires officers to go to the site, we want them to be accompanied by that mental health expert to ensure people are treated in the most beneficial way for their health.

The second part of the project is reducing wait times for mental health evaluations. Before defendants can stand trial, they are required to have an evaluation, so some people wait longer in jail for the evaluation than they would have been if found guilty of the crime. We want to raise grant funding for data collaboration so that records are kept and shared if people have already been evaluated.

How do you plan to use these experiences after college? Would you recommend the death row tour to others?

I want to take this knowledge with me to law school and figure out what I want to do; maybe go into this field or do pro bono work. I want to incorporate this experience into my lifestyle and career.

I would recommend this trip to other people because it is a unique experience that you wouldn’t normally get the opportunity to do. It deals with our most basic human right: the right to life. In addition, it is worthwhile to be able to see first-hand the prison system, especially because the U.S. has the one of the highest numbers of  incarcerated people in the world. Whatever side of the political spectrum you’re on its important to be as informed as possible.

Scholar Spotlight | My Semester in South America

Highland Capital Management Tower Scholar Ryan Cross in Machu Picchu, Peru

Highland Capital Management Tower Scholar Ryan Cross spent the spring of 2017 studying abroad in Argentina and Chile. He spent seven weeks in each country learning about economics, political development, and business in Latin America. During breaks he visited Uruguay and Peru. Cross sat down with the Tower Center to talk about his experience.

Describe your life in Argentina. What was a typical day like for you?

I began each day enjoying breakfast with my host family and roommate. Coffee, fresh fruit, medialunas (a croissant-like pastry), and dulce de leche (a spread similar to caramel) were staples. Next, I rode a public bus to the office building that housed the program’s classrooms. I participated in a lengthy seminar each morning with the nine other American students led by professors from distinguished local universities. For lunch, I often ate Argentine empanadas: a pastry shell filled with ground beef, olives, and eggs. Throughout the afternoon, my friends and I strolled through Buenos Aires’ eclectic mix of neighborhoods. We explored posh Recoleta, industrial La Boca, and youthful Palermo Soho, coming into contact with a cross-section of Argentine society.

Dinner with my host family was the highlight of each day. Over an Italian-style meal of gnocchi, ravioli, or risotto, we discussed current events and debated politics. In Argentina, asking about political views is not as taboo as in the U.S. My host family was captivated by the daily drama of President Trump. In fact, they followed American politics more closely than I did! Since most American college students study abroad in Europe, I was often the first young American Argentines had ever met. 

What is one lesson you took away from your time there?

Highland Capital Management Tower Scholar Ryan Cross in Santiago, Chile.

Living in Latin America requires all-embracing patience on a daily basis. I was routinely frustrated by small aspects of life which we take for granted in the United States. Modifying my expectations to match the reality of city life was imperative. For example, public transportation in Buenos Aires is notoriously unreliable. My 45-minute morning commute was often stymied by strikes and protest marches that obstructed thoroughfares leading to the city’s center. I surmounted this challenge with extremely flexible planning.

How has this experience impacted your goals for the future?

My semester in Argentina and Chile brought me one step closer to my professional goals. I secured a summer internship at the headquarters of the U.S. Postal Service in Washington. My responsibilities centered around Latin American affairs. Drawing upon my newfound comfort speaking in Spanish, I communicated with foreign government officials by letter, phone, and email. I helped to facilitate bilateral negotiations with the postal services of Mexico, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Peru, and Venezuela. This opportunity solidified my interest in pursuing a career oriented toward Latin America.

What is it like transitioning back into life in Dallas and at SMU?

After living in dense neighborhoods of Buenos Aires and Santiago my lifestyle in Dallas feels relaxed. I now understand what a breeze it is to live in the Park Cities. Compared with the chaotic streets of Buenos Aires and Santiago, the busiest roads near campus like Mockingbird and Hillcrest are calm and orderly. I also enjoy the availability of green spaces like the Katy Trail. While I am grateful for the exposure to life in Latin American cities, I cannot deny that Dallas provides a very comfortable environment by comparison.