From Student Advocacy Seminars to internships, Scholars at Risk offers a variety of opportunities for students to support at-risk scholars and promote academic freedom while gaining valuable professional experience. In this month’s SAR Spotlight, Chris Tatara (Illinois Wesleyan University, Class of 2014) describes the impact working with SAR has had on his life, as well as the impact he has had on SAR.
How did you first learn about SAR and the Student Advocacy Seminar?
I learned about SAR through my friends who founded Illinois Wesleyan’s first Student Advocacy Seminar. I already had an interest in human rights and was taking a human rights course, so all those interests got thrown together and things went from there. The seminar would meet once a week over lunch to look at scholar-in-prison cases. The first semester we helped write a letter of appeal for an Iranian physicist, Omid Kokabee, and the second semester we researched Ilham Tohti, a Chinese scholar now serving a life sentence as result of his work on Uighur rights. Professor Tohti was actually arrested during our research, so it was a high profile case and in some ways still is.
How do you think the Student Advocacy Seminar compared to other social justice initiatives on campus?
It was more personal because it was a smaller, more close-knit group. Some other organizations still have that grassroots idea, but you’re joining millions of others in a letter-writing campaign or attending a demonstration or protest. There’s nothing wrong with that, but being a part of the seminar, I felt, brought me closer to the issue itself, and it was more content-based as opposed to participation-based.
What do you find compelling about SAR’s work?
One of the most compelling things for me is that it’s such a relatable issue. I was very passionate about my schoolwork and studies—I viewed them as my personal and professional contribution to society. So the thought of somebody taking that away immediately connected with me. Connecting with these scholars and students that just want to research, write and go to class…that was something I identified with.
Later as a SAR intern, I remember corresponding back and forth with a scholar for whom we were trying to get fees waived at a university in the UK, and on my last day of the internship, we finally received a positive response from the university. It was such a huge relief for all of us and the scholar as well. Knowing that the letters we had written made a difference and that he could continue his studies was a heartwarming moment.
Upon graduating from IWU, you were hired as a consultant by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA). What did your daily work look like?
At GCPEA, I’ve mainly served as coordinator for their higher education working group, supporting a project based on the idea that states have a responsibility to protect higher education from attack. We’ve consulted with higher education associations in pretty much all parts of the world on this and developed a set of principles more-or-less describing states’ responsibility as sovereigns to protect higher education from attack or undue, outside interference. Recently we advocated for language on this issue at a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution on the right to education, which recently passed. That was a big touchdown for us, but we’re looking to continue moving it forward.
What advice would you give to students hoping to work in human rights?
Based on my experiences, I’d say the key thing is to identify what your niche is, because human rights is such a broad topic. I think you really need to clearly identify what your goals and interests are. Don’t just say “I want to do human rights work.” Say “I want to do child rights work in Africa, in these countries. These are the people and organizations that work on these issues in these countries; these are the skills they have; these are the language they speak,” and gravitate towards that one topic. It’s really about identifying that core subset of your interests and building on that.
What’s next for Chris?
This fall I’ll start graduate school at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies where I’ll study international economics and European and Eurasian studies. I’ll actually spend my first year at Hopkins’ campus in Bologna, Italy, before returning to Washington, D.C. for my last year of the program.
Later, I hope to take the Foreign Service exam. I’m also interested in research, so maybe I’ll work for a think-tank or pursue more human rights-oriented work. Recently, I’ve been really interested in writing and journalism, so that’s always a possibility. I’ve still got a bit more time to focus.