Scholars at Risk

Student Advocacy Seminar Handbook

Taking Action in Support of Imprisoned Scholars


Student Advocacy Seminars provide university and college students with the opportunity to partner with Scholars at Risk (SAR) to advance its advocacy work on behalf of threatened and imprisoned scholars around the world. In this effort, as actively engaged advocates, students develop human rights research and advocacy skills.


Arranged and supervised by local faculty in partnership with SAR, each seminar takes on the case of one or more scholars facing unjust restrictions, prosecution, or imprisonment. This experiential learning program, tailored to each institution and group of students, is designed to give students a foundation in:

  • Historical, regional, and human rights research
  • Understanding of the role of civil society, government, and international organizations in human rights
  • Organizing, campaigning, and advocacy skills
  • Persuasive writing and speaking
  • Report writing
  • Leadership and teamwork skills

Over the course of the seminar, students gain a deeper understanding of the value of academic freedom and the risks scholars and students around the world face in the pursuit of knowledge.

Scholars at Risk (SAR) is an international network of institutions and individuals whose collective mission is to protect scholars and promote academic freedom.                                                              Founded in 2000 and headquartered at New York University, SAR’s core protection work provides direct assistance to threatened scholars, including by arranging temporary positions at SAR member institutions and a range of other services.                                                                                                   SAR’s advocacy work aims to increase protection for vulnerable individuals by documenting the problem of attacks on higher education and seeking accountability of perpetrators in order to deter future attacks. Since the launch of Student Advocacy Seminars in 2014, students have played an increasingly important role in SAR’s advocacy work.

Organizing a Seminar

Seminars are research and advocacy partnerships between Scholars at Risk, faculty, and students with the common goal of elevating the issue of academic freedom within the international higher education community. Students’ efforts contribute directly to SAR’s advocacy on behalf of imprisoned scholars and students.

SAR will set up a call to discuss the seminars,
send sample syllabi and other teaching materials, and connect the faculty person with other faculty leaders who might offer advice. Then throughout the term, SAR will provide support to faculty and students, including: videoconference presentations by SAR staff and case or country experts; case materials; introductions to other seminars, and webinars; and other events.


  • To conduct advocacy that benefits cases of threatened scholars.
  • To impart practical human rights advocacy and leadership skills to students.
  • To bring attention to and educate government officials about cases of imprisoned scholars and higher education communities under threat.
  • To educate the campus and community about academic freedom issues worldwide.
  • To raise awareness about the institution’s involvement with Scholars at Risk and its efforts to defend the human rights of scholars.


  • Coordinate with the faculty supervisor on case selection from SAR’s Scholars in Prison Project, strategy, background, and materials.†
  • Connect faculty supervisor and students—when possible—with persons involved in the case, regional and topical experts, and previous seminar participants.
  • Connect faculty supervisor and students with other seminars to share experiences, common research, and possible joint advocacy activities.
  • Host one webinar per term to connect all current faculty leaders, to exchange best practices and discuss lessons learned.
  • Present the annual Student Advocacy Days, an opportunity for students to participate in advocacy trainings and raise government, social media, and other awareness about their cases.


  • Make administrative arrangements for the seminar (or other appropriate course formats) and ensure compliance with the home institution.
  • Coordinate with SAR on case selection, advocacy guidelines and tracking, and case goals.
  • Meet regularly with students to discuss the case and coordinate research and advocacy efforts.
  • Coordinate with SAR on an end-of-seminar report and any advocacy events or meetings.


  • Research the case of one or more imprisoned scholars.
  • Set up a plan to monitor the case(s).
  • Organize advocacy initiatives, including social media campaigns, videos, outreach to campus and other news outlets, awareness- raising on campus, and/or conducting government advocacy.
  • Report to SAR on research and advocacy developments.
  • Prepare an end-of-seminar report and/or capstone advocacy activity.

INTERESTED? Student Advocacy Seminars are open to all SAR member institutions. Faculty members and students can start the process by emailing    * Membership is open to accredited higher education institutions and associations worldwide; to learn more or to join the network, visit our website.

Course Timeline

The following course-long timeline provides a flexible framework that can be adapted for courses of differing duration, structure, and academic objectives.


Before the seminar begins, faculty supervisor(s)
and SAR share materials and discuss seminar basics including case selection, syllabi, potential advocacy actions, the students’ specific interests, general goals, and tracking and reporting. SAR connects faculty with individuals who might call in to the class or otherwise provide guidance, including human rights organization contacts, family members, and /or other faculty or students working on the case.

Planning Materials

  • List of potential cases for students to discuss and select from
  • Briefing on ongoing advocacy for those cases
  • Series of training videos on student advocacy
  • Sample student reports
  • Sample syllabi
  • Model alerts and letters of appeals
  • Introductions to human rights organizations, family members, and other guest speakers
  • Introductions to faculty who have led seminars, and to seminar alumni, where possible


Seminars meet throughout the semester, usually on a weekly basis. SAR is available to join seminar meetings via video or conference call during the semester to provide advice, troubleshoot research challenges, give practical advocacy guidance, and brainstorm next steps. SAR recommends inviting country and case experts to join seminar meetings to contribute to student conversations about country context and advocacy actions.


Students select a case of one or more imprisoned scholars, conduct research, set up a monitoring plan and schedule, and begin to draft a summary dossier. A summary dossier includes background on the human rights situation of the country in question, information on the scholar’s academic background, timeline of the case (arrests, charges, sentencing, etc.),

prison conditions and any health concerns, and actions taken or ongoing in the case. A summary dossier serves as the basis for future advocacy by the seminar and SAR, and may be shared with partner organizations seeking to learn more about the case from the seminar.

Case Research Areas

  • Human rights situation in the scholar’s country or region of origin
  • Academic freedom conditions within the region
  • Scholar’s career as an academic, scholar, or public intellectual
  • Circumstances of scholar’s imprisonment
  • Prison conditions and any reports of mistreatment
  • Judicial process or concerns
  • Actions taken by SAR, human rights organizations, the higher education sector, governments, and others regarding the case

Monitoring Practices

  • Set up automated media alerts for relevant articles through Google Alerts
  • Set up social media accounts to follow @ScholarsAtRisk, international and regional human rights organizations, and accounts dedicated to advocacy for the scholar
  • Set up a TweetDeck, Hootsuite, or a similar social media dashboard that allows you to scroll through lists of Twitter users, hashtags, and keywords tailored to your group’s focus. Create a reference list of key informational websites for the case
  • Reach out to experts and human rights organizations, with SAR’s assistance, to seek advice on tracking case developments
  • Create a schedule for making check-in calls to experts and human rights organizations
  • Subscribe to SAR’s Academic Freedom Media Review, Advocacy Insider, Advocacy Opportunities, and Newsletter
  • Visit the Academic Freedom Monitoring Project for new incident reports

Course Timeline Continued


With support and guidance from SAR, students identify advocacy opportunities, consult with individuals tied to the case or experts on advocacy, the case, or the region, and take action. Faculty supervisor(s) and SAR discuss an awareness-raising end-of-semester activity.

Advocacy Opportunities

  • Writing emails and private or public letters of appeal to government and non-government officials
  • Hosting letter-writing and informational events for the campus community
  • Placing op-eds in campus and local media or sending a press release to media outlets asking for coverage
  • Organizing social media campaigns
  • Creating visual campaigns
  • Presenting on the case(s) as part of a student scholarship or human rights conference
  • Encouraging campus officials to consider organizing a campus conversation about academic freedom—perhaps a SAR Speaker Series lecture—featuring the scholar’s situation
  • Approaching government officials to issue letters and take additional action
  • Organizing webinars or virtual events to discuss the scholar’s case
  • Participating in SAR’s Student Advocacy Days
  • See Advocacy Ideas & Best Practices for additional opportunities.

Final case report and activity

Students organize an end-of-semester advocacy activity and finalize their case reports. We encourage faculty to provide students with an opportunity to give brief case(s) presentations, using the case report as the basis for this. Final case reports serve as important references for SAR and future seminars to continue advocacy work on behalf of the scholar(s).

Final Case Report

  • Summary of case(s), including background information and latest case developments; the summary dossier should be incorporated into this
  • Timeline of seminar’s advocacy activities
  • Contacts or informational sources developed by students (and their contact information) so SAR may continue discussions started by students
  • Assessment of most successful advocacy activities
  • Recommended next steps for SAR staff
  • Student reflections and feedback for SAR

“The work we did as a class taught me how to be engaged, as a student and as a citizen.”

Seminar FAQs

There is no one-size-fits-all Student Advocacy Seminar. SAR works with faculty members and students to create an opportunity that fits their curricular needs and interests.

Q: How are seminars organized?

Student Advocacy Seminars can be conducted as small-group seminars, independent studies, or supervised internships. Past iterations have been organized as for-credit courses and as non-credit extracurricular opportunities.

Faculty members from a variety of departments and disciplines have incorporated the Student Advocacy Seminar program into their curricula. Human rights, international relations, political science, writing, literature, and other disciplines can serve as excellent academic homes for the program, with each bringing a different focus to the students’ work.

Q: Do faculty need to have a specific background or expertise?

Faculty members from a variety of departments and disciplines have incorporated the Student Advocacy Seminar program into their curricula. Human rights, international relations, political science, writing, literature, and other disciplines can serve as excellent academic homes for the program, with each bringing a different focus to the students’ work.

Q: How are seminars connected to service and /or experiential learning?

SAR is delighted to partner with institutions as they incorporate service learning, community engagement, and experiential learning into their course offerings. In working with SAR, students have the opportunity to interact directly with SAR staff, develop a stronger understanding of NGO operations and human rights work, and make a meaningful impact on SAR’s goals to promote academic freedom and protect the human rights of scholars worldwide.

Q: How are cases selected by SAR and by seminars?

SAR selects cases for its Scholars in Prison Project by determining whether the scholar is an academic, scholar, and/or student, whether they are imprisoned, and assessing ways in which SAR can provide added value to the case. SAR researches potential points of conflict or concern for taking the case on to ensure SAR is supporting a scholar who was imprisoned in connection to their academic work, content, conduct, and/or identity, or other protected human rights such as freedom of expression and freedom of association.

SAR presents seminars with cases from its Scholars in Prison Project and background information of each case. SAR greatly encourages faculty and students to choose a case together. SAR is happy to provide more information about cases and support seminars in case selection.

Q: Will SAR help me find experts, speakers, and resources?

SAR will facilitate collaboration between seminars and will connect seminars with experts and potential speakers within its network. SAR will share with faculty materials and videos to support the seminar.

Scholars in Prison Project

Through the Scholars in Prison Project, SAR conducts advocacy on behalf of scholars and students who are wrongfully imprisoned in connection to their academic or expressive activities.


SAR conducts both public and private advocacy on behalf of cases under the project, depending on the family’s or legal counsel’s preferences. Advocacy may include issuing a public or private letter of concern, organizing letter-writing campaigns, participating in social media campaigns, hosting events, raising cases with government officials, including cases in reports to intergovernmental bodies, among other activities.

Student Advocacy Seminars are an instrumental part of SAR’s case advocacy by expanding our reach and avenues for action. Through their research, seminars often identify and explore novel and creative ways to engage in advocacy. Seminars also show government authorities that higher education communities around the world care about the scholar in prison and are watching. This public pressure from the international community sends the message that should further harm come to the scholar, they will be held accountable.


SAR identifies potential cases for the Scholars in Prison Project through the Academic Freedom Monitoring Project, the media, higher education institutions, scholars, and partner organizations. SAR also receives requests for assistance from family members or colleagues of imprisoned scholars and students. In some cases, if a scholar is temporarily released on bail or is otherwise out of state custody, SAR will receive requests directly from the scholar. When receiving a request for help, SAR conducts research about the scholar and their situation, and assesses the amount and quality of information available, the gravity of the case, and opportunities for SAR to make an impact in the case.

Advocacy Ideas & Best Practices

Students working with SAR have proven immensely creative in their advocacy efforts on behalf of imprisoned scholars. From viral social media campaigns to meeting government officials, there are ample opportunities to make a difference in a scholar’s case.

Below are a few ideas with suggested best practices. SAR encourages students to think creatively and utilize the various skills students in the seminar have. Some seminars have found it helpful to break up into teams focused on different avenues of advocacy.


Reach out to local media to raise awareness of your case. Local or campus newspapers, magazines, podcasts, radios, local news stations, and other media outlets are great platforms to elevate your case and encourage your community to engage in taking action. You can place an op-ed in a paper or send a press release asking a media outlet to cover your case. A Dundee University seminar participated in a podcast to amplify their advocacy efforts and raise awareness of their case.


Write letters to and schedule conversations with government officials who can contribute their voices to your advocacy campaign. Your local and national representatives, senators, members of parliament, and their staff often care deeply about hearing from student constituents. In advance of your call or meeting, send copies of your case portfolio and carefully plan your tangible advocacy pitch, such as asking for a letter to an ambassador or foreign government. Contact SAR for a pre-meeting training. SAR organizes an annual Student Advocacy Days to coordinate government meetings and provide pre-meeting training for students; see Student Advocacy Days for more information.


Inform and engage your community by organizing a lecture, panel, film, or tabling event—virtually or on campus. Whether your event is more formal or more fun in nature, make sure it includes a tangible “ask” of participants that builds awareness of the case and your group’s presence on campus. To bring more attention to the campus event, partner with a campus organization and/or department interested in human rights or connected to the same field of research as the scholar. A seminar at University of California at Santa Barbara organized a tabling event to collect signatures for petitions to demand the release of Hatoon al-Fassi. The students created “Free Hatoon” t-shirts, created a visual campaign of an illustration of al-Fassi, and created a convertible car cut out with a sign reading “Free Saudi Feminists.” Within two hours, the students collected over 330 signatures.


Launch a social media campaign calling on students to show their support through photos and statements of solidarity. Choose a strong, catchy hashtag and make sure your message reaches your target audience, such as government officials and human rights organizations, by tagging their handles. Plan your campaign in advance by determining the date(s) and duration, create any graphics, and coordinate with any partner seminars or human rights organizations. (See our Social Media Guide for more ideas and best practices). Roger Williams University’s (RWU) seminar conducted a week-long campaign around Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the US. RWU students took photos in front of quotes from prominent Chinese scholars in prison. SAR reposted these and included links to letters of appeal that the students and members of their network could sign.

Social Media Guide

Social media has changed the landscape for human rights advocacy, allowing organizations like Scholars at Risk to reach a wider global audience. When social media is used effectively, it helps circulate updates on a case while concurrently growing the number of people concerned and the number of voices involved.

Getting Set Up


Scholars at Risk maintains official accounts on Twitter (@ScholarsAtRisk) and Facebook ( to inform followers of attacks on higher education communities; updates on imprisoned scholars; highlight advocacy initiatives, news, and events; and share higher education resources. SAR’s official accounts are also a way to share the important work of the network, including members and students.


Student groups are encouraged to create account usernames that make reference to both their institution and SAR (see Posting with Purpose for sample social media handles). Make sure that the group’s username and display name are not just “Scholars at Risk” so that your group has a distinct online identity. Refrain from creating an account that references a particular case; this makes it difficult to use the account in the long term and could result in lost followers.

Establishing an eye-catching, clear, and familiar visual presence is essential to attracting followers and building a movement. SAR encourages student groups to design profile and cover images that reflect their institutional identity and relationship to SAR.

Posting with Purpose


SAR’s power lies in its network—the convening of higher education institutions, scholars, students, human rights defenders, and other individuals to protect and promote academic freedom. With so many groups working to this end, awareness of new advocacy actions, social media campaigns, and reports of attacks on higher education communities is essential.

On Twitter, we recommend tagging or tweeting at SAR’s official social media accounts, other student advocacy accounts, and the relevant social media accounts tied to your campus (e.g. official school account, human rights centers, etc.). SAR has also set up a Student Advocacy Twitter list where your group can find suggested research and advocacy accounts to follow for updates, contact with questions, and engage on awareness-raising campaigns.

You can increase your group’s following and build the conversation on both Twitter and Facebook by sharing and commenting on your followers’ posts. Similarly, when other users share one of your posts, recognize them with a “thank you!” or a “like.” You can also spark conversation by incorporating open-ended questions in your posts (e.g. Why should students care about #AcademicFreedom?).


At the right are just a few suggested dates that your group can use to call attention to imprisoned scholars, to promote stronger protections for academic freedom, and to honor victims of attacks on higher education. SAR also suggests using the birthday of a scholar, anniversaries of a scholar’s arrest or sentencing, and national holidays to mobilize action on social media. SAR encourages groups to visit the Academic Freedom Monitoring Project and Scholars in Prison page for more advocacy dates.


SAR Online Community Handles

SAR’s sections and partners include higher education institutions, NGOs, and individuals around the globe. These handles represent just a few of many potential social media advocacy partners.

@ScholarsAtRisk, @SAR_Europe, @SAR_Canada, @pen_int, @GPPi, @IHRN4Rights, @EUA, @Amnesty, @ConcernedSci, @ESUtwt, @CAF4MESA, @FrontLineHRD, @article19org, @SAIH, @freedomnoworg

Suggested Advocacy Dates

SAR’s sections and partners include higher education institutions, NGOs, and individuals around the globe. These handles represent just a few of many potential social media advocacy partners.

  • January 3
    Anniversary of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)
  • January 24
    International Day of Education
  • March 23
    Anniversary of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
  • May 3
    Press Freedom Day
  • June 20
    World Refugee Day
  • June 26
    Anniversary of the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
  • September
    UN General Assembly
  • October 5
    World Teachers Day
  • December 10
    UN Human Rights Day
  • December 20
    Anniversary of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance


When posting case updates, event announcements, or advocacy invitations, you can increase your exposure by adding a hashtag. Simply plug keywords related to your post (e.g. “Hong Kong” and “student activists”) into the Twitter search feature to find trending hashtags to add to your posts. Also review trending hashtags and think of creative ways to connect your case to one of those hashtags, if possible. If your group is brainstorming names for new campaign ideas, think of how the name can be turned into a hashtag (e.g. #FreeHamid
or #SingaceHungerStrike). Once you agree on a campaign hashtag, be consistent in its use, and let SAR know about your hashtag so that it can be used by others working on the case.


Maintaining credibility is essential to any advocacy initiative. Keep your campaign followers’ attention by only sharing reports from credible news sources. A good rule of thumb when deciding to re-tweet or share updates is to cross-reference the post with several news sources. When in doubt, ask your faculty advisor or a SAR staff person for advice, or wait until new reports have been released.


Using images, videos, and infographics are great ways to grab your audience’s attention. SAR strongly encourages student groups to capture and share photos and videos of your campus activities, including those held via videoconference, over social media to encourage action and maintain momentum around your case and issues of concern.

When available, your group should incorporate visuals that connect to your case. Family members may be willing to share personal images of imprisoned scholars. Images of the scholar, their university, or even the prison where they are being held may also be readily available online on websites including Wikimedia Commons, Flickr, or the Creative Commons. Students with artistic abilities may also illustrate the scholar to provide another visual for your campaign or use graphic design skills to create an eye-catching graphic.

Hashtags to Consider











Remember to use appropriate capitalization in your hashtags, so as to ensure easy reading for screen use (for example, please use #FreeIlhamTohti instead of #freeilhamtohti).


Global Connection

With its network of over 500 member institutions in 42 countries, SAR is delighted to promote and facilitate collaboration among seminars and student groups.


Students in different seminars creating advocacy campaigns around the same cases or cases from the same country can benefit greatly from collaboration and can use cross-seminar connections to amplify their impact. Past groups have launched joint social media campaigns, using the same hashtags and imagery to create momentum and awareness across state and national borders. As part of Student Advocacy Days (see Student Advocacy Days) and on their own initiative, seminars have joined forces for meetings with government officials, demonstrating the widespread support for their cases through combined action.


While SAR is available throughout the semester to troubleshoot any research issues that may arise, other seminars can be a valuable resource for information on a case, country, or particular line of inquiry. SAR is happy to connect interested seminars for this kind of informational exchange, which also allows students to build their own networks with others interested in the human rights field.


“This experience has fostered a passion about the pursuit of freedom and knowledge across the world for all of us in this seminar.”


By using Facebook Live, Zoom, and other webcasting platforms when holding events, seminars can reach beyond their home campus and invite other seminars to participate in, comment on, and share the broadcast.


Through the SAR Speaker Series, seminars
have the opportunity to invite SAR scholars to give a guest lecture to their seminar and/or to the wider campus community. In addition, faculty members and students involved with student advocacy at other universities can offer a unique perspective, whether in person or over Skype.


Every two years, the network gathers for the SAR Global Congress. Student Advocacy Seminar participants are invited to attend the Congress to meet SAR scholars, advocates, and researchers; learn about the current state of global academic freedom; and present their own advocacy work as part of the conference programming.

Student Advocacy Days

SAR’s Student Advocacy Days convenes faculty and students annually to discuss advocacy strategies, receive training, and advocate before elected officials on behalf of their selected cases.


Student Advocacy Days provides seminar participants with the opportunity to learn from one another and to hear from speakers with significant experience and insight into effective advocacy strategies.

Students have the chance to present their cases to their peers, share their goals and challenges, and work together to problem-solve and brainstorm. Like-minded students from diverse campuses meet one another and build their community of human rights advocates.

As part of these events, SAR also facilitates the meeting of students at different campuses working on the same case, so as to enable cross-campus coordinated advocacy efforts.

The training program includes interactive sessions that prepare students for successful advocacy meetings with a wide range of public officials. Students attend workshops on approaching the press about a case, conducting social media campaigns, and exploring multinational governmental mechanisms.

“I learned that advocacy is not about eliminating your own voice, it is about using your voice and personal views to elevate the voice of others by reaching more people.”


Student Advocacy Days also provides students the opportunity to put their training into action by speaking with government and elected officials to generate support for imprisoned scholars.

On Capitol Hill and over videoconference and telephone calls, students have advocated on behalf of imprisoned scholars with the offices of their elected representatives, officials from the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, and staff from partner human rights organizations. Their persuasive presentations have resulted in a range of successes, from signed letters of support to increased awareness and monitoring of scholars’ cases. Students contribute to advocacy around these cases of concern while gaining hands-on experience that will inform their future careers.

SAR supports students and faculty in following up on in-person and videoconference government meetings.

Suggested Materials

Readings and online materials on academic freedom, human rights law, and threats to the scholarly community provide a foundation for students’ research and advocacy. A few suggested materials are noted below.

Dangerous Questions: Why Academic Freedom Matters

MOOC offered by University of Oslo and Scholars at Risk

Jewher Ilham: A Uyghur’s Fight to Free Her Father

edited by Ashley Barton and Adam Braver

Intellectual-HRDs and claims for academic freedom under human rights law

by Robert Quinn and Jesse Levine, published in The International Journal of Human Rights

Free to Think 2020

by Scholars at Risk

Obstacles to Excellence: Academic Freedom and China’s Quest for World-Class Universities

by Scholars at Risk

Exclusive Resources

SAR organizes an extensive repository of resources from past seminars, including readings, videos, class reports, and syllabi. These include:

  • Evergreen Series: Approaches to Student Advocacy
  • A series of video trainings and discussion questions for students and faculty
  • Tools for advocacy
  • Guidelines for raising case awareness with government bodies

Contact SAR at to start a seminar and to access these resources.