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J-Term: Human Rights and the Refugee Crisis

Laura Alexander


This next installment in the J-Term series has been written by Laura Alexander, Career Counselor in the Office of University Career Services and J-Term Instructor. See the other J-Term blogs here.




Over the course of two weeks in January – including one snowy Saturday when instructor-provided donuts were not a luxury but a necessity – a group of fifteen students of diverse years and majors engaged with “Human Rights and the Refugee Crisis.” For this January term course, my goal was to help the students better understand particular narratives, as well as data, about the current refugee crisis and historical refugee movements. We discussed the Syrian civil war and the refugee flows it has created in depth, while recognizing that not all of the millions of refugees in our world are Syrian. We also looked to historical sources for analysis and lessons, recognizing that this is not the first time the world has struggled with the physical, economic, humanitarian, political, and philosophical concerns sparked by the forced movement of large groups of people, within and across national borders.

In many ways the class centered around questions of values: what basic values inform students’ ideas about human rights and refugee concerns? Students expressed intellectual and moral commitments to the importance of upholding human life and dignity; concerns for liberty and equity; and (sometimes competing) concerns about both the moral significance of bounded local and national communities and the importance of boundary-crossing global commitments to human rights. Students had opportunities to reflect on the values expressed in texts and other materials – and their own values.

Refugees Image from LA

Those four hours a day for ten days are intense and can be tiring for all involved! To help keep ourselves focused and energized, the class took on a variety of activities. We read and discussed texts, including human rights documents, articles on the experiences of refugees and political thinking on how to approach refugee concerns, and texts from philosophical and religious thinkers addressing the ethical implications of approaches to refugee crises. We also watched the excellent documentary Exodus: Our Journey to Europe, which I would and do recommend to anyone. Speakers from community organizations, including the International Rescue Committee and Literacy Volunteers Charlottesville/Albemarle, discussed their work with refugees and other immigrants.

Finally, the course incorporated a strong component of service and vocational reflection. The first Friday of the course, we took a service-learning trip to the Charlottesville office of the International Rescue Committee, where we sorted donations for their year-round “store” at which newly arrived refugees can choose items of clothing to take home. Prior to the trip, students learned from the director of the IRC about their service and how the project fit into the organization’s larger goals. We read an article about immigrants’ and refugees’ own volunteer service within local communities, and we discussed ideas and concerns about short-term volunteer projects, the meaning of service-learning, and how students might learn from and reflect in a meaningful way on even such a short service experience. Later on in the course, a career counselor from the UVA Career Center provided a presentation on vocational reflection and service opportunities at UVA and in a variety of careers. With many of the students in the course deeply interested in understanding and promoting human rights, the presentation provided us a helpful jumping-off point to relate the students’ classroom learning to their varied interest areas, especially in public service, law, and policy.

J-term goes incredibly fast, but its structure supports this kind of creative integration of different areas of students’ lives, values, and learning, and I’m grateful for the deep engagement it provided me with an important topic area and a deeply committed group of students!