Students advocate on Capitol Hill for wrongfully-detained scholars worldwide – US SAR Student Advocacy Days 2022

Posted May 3, 2022

Students, faculty, and SAR staff gather for a workshop on science and human rights at AAAS’s Washington, DC offices, as part of SAR’s US Student Advocacy Days

Scholars at Risk held its annual US Student Advocacy Days in Washington, DC in early April, bringing together over 30 students and faculty from Drexel University, Muhlenberg College, Roger Williams University, and the University of Iowa to conduct advocacy in support of wrongfully imprisoned scholars and students. Students and faculty participating in SAR’s Student Advocacy Seminars, faculty-led courses on advocacy and academic freedom, convened in the capital for the two-day event featuring student-led meetings with members of Congress, debriefing and planning sessions with SAR staff, and presentations by civil society. 

Students take action on the Hill

The event opened on April 7 with a series of meetings with offices of US lawmakers. Prior to traveling, students learned how to present a case to government officials by participating in a SAR-led virtual training on US Congressional advocacy.

“That kind of agency [by students] in addressing…questions [to officials] is something that I can’t foster in the classroom, but when you get to see it, it’s pretty exciting.”

In 17 meetings with members of Congress, students sought Congressional action regarding wrongfully imprisoned scholars held in Belarus, China, Egypt, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates. These scholars are: Ahmadreza Djalali, Ahmed Samir Santawy, Ilham Tohti, Marfa Rabkova, Nasser bin Ghaith, Rahile Dawut, and Patrick Zaki. In meetings, students asked their representatives to act in support of these scholars, shared case history, introduced SAR’s work, and explained why they, as students, care about these scholars’ well-being.

Students from Drexel University at Student Advocacy Days. On Capitol Hill, students asked their representatives to take action in support of wrongfully imprisoned scholars.

Prior to meetings with their representatives about wrongfully imprisoned scholars, students from the University of Iowa met to practice their case presentations.

Students learn to become stronger advocates

As part of the event, students participated in workshops and meetings intended to help them refine their advocacy and leadership skills and ultimately to become stronger advocates. Students, faculty, and SAR staff gathered at the National Endowment for Democracy to discuss their Hill meetings and to workshop next steps in case advocacy.

Students shared challenges they encountered, discussed best practices for action, and sought advice and guidance on next steps.

Students from Muhlenberg College presented their case advocacy at a debriefing session at the National Endowment for Democracy.

The keynote presentation by Jewher Ilham was a highlight of the event. Daughter of the prominent economist imprisoned in China, Professor Ilham Tohti. Jewher spoke of how important awareness-raising efforts are for imprisoned scholars’ families. She reflected on the need for continued fact-based advocacy, saying “You need both the will and the research to have impact on an issue.”


“I had a wonderful time at SAR Student Advocacy Days in DC and definitely hope to return to improve my case advocacy skill set in the coming years.”

On April 8, Theresa Harris of the American Association for the Advancement of Science met with the students to discuss the intersection of science and human rights. Theresa encouraged students to engage the scientific community in their advocacy, noting how scientific associations in particular have a commitment to both public and private advocacy. 

The event also included a session on career paths, with special focus on utilizing and transferring skills developed during students’ work in the SAR Student Advocacy Seminar. This final session featured a discussion between SAR staff and a Roger Williams University alum about the application of advocacy and leadership skills in nonprofit sector careers.

“We’re able to work together and present new ideas that we typically wouldn’t have in a traditional classroom setting… When we came back from our trip from DC the air in the classroom had definitely changed.”

Join us next year

SAR’s Student Advocacy Days provides students with practical tools and knowledge to advocate on behalf of imprisoned scholars and the opportunity to collaborate across campuses. SAR is looking forward to working with Student Advocacy Seminar students as they follow up with elected officials and continue their efforts on behalf of individual scholars and their families.

Start a Seminar on your campus to join us at the next Student Advocacy Days.

Listen to Brian Mello and Bhavna Prakash from Muhlenberg College describe their experience with SAR’s Student Advocacy Seminars on the Free to Think Podcast:


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