Humphrey School News—May 12, 2017

First Master of Human Rights Degree Awarded by Humphrey School

The University of Minnesota’s first student to graduate with a master’s degree in human rights celebrates commencement Saturday, alongside nearly 200 other graduates from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs who leave the University committed to making the world a better place.

For Marin Phelps, who receives a Master in Human Rights (MHR), that means moving to Africa, and focusing on human rights work there.

Phelps is the first of the initial cohort of 10 who entered the new degree program last fall.  She transferred into the program after spending her first year in the Master of Public Policy program.

Phelps, who grew up in rural Nebraska and South Dakota, went to Kenya twice to conduct research. Last summer she was part of a group examining the implementation of Kenya's new constitution.  She and another student returned over winter break to study methods to promote women’s participation in the political process in one county in Kenya.

She said her lifelong interest in human rights was inspired by her grandmothers, who instilled in her a "servant's heart." Their message to her from an early age was: “There are so many injustices in the world that if you can affect change, you have the responsibility to do it.”

What drew Phelps to the MHR program was its interdisciplinary nature. The MHR program is jointly supported by the Humphrey School and the College of Liberal Arts (CLA), and students take courses in both schools that cover a wide variety of subject areas such as sociology, anthropology, law, global policy, leadership, and management.

Associate Professor James Ron, Harold E. Stassen Chair for International Affairs and co-director of the MHR program, said that approach is unique among human rights degree programs in the United States; most of them are housed in law schools, rather than public policy schools like the Humphrey, where there’s more emphasis on research and analysis.  

“A lot of what we already do at the Humphrey School fits into human rights,” said Ron. “Human rights issues are addressed by changing policies. Any improvements have to be made through the policy process, so not studying human rights through a policy lens is a mistake.”

About 60 percent of the MHR students are from the United States, and the rest are international students. After they finish their degrees, Ron expects most of them to work in their own countries.

“There’s a misconception in the United States that human rights advocates only deal with things like torture and massacres in other countries. Human rights also means access to economic security, health care, clean water, food, and personal safety here in our country,” said Ron.

Current MHR students who will graduate next year have internships this summer with human rights organizations across the country and around the world.

One student will be working with the city of Seattle’s Human Rights Commission, where local leaders are designating Seattle the first “human rights city” in America.

Another has an internship with Human Rights Watch in India, where she will work on reform programs with police around human rights accountability. And a third is interning with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva.  

Ron said these examples illustrate the breadth of opportunities that MHR students have during and after their studies at the University of Minnesota.

For her part, Marin Phelps said she’s grateful for the hands-on opportunities she was given in the human rights program at the Humphrey School.

“The freedom to be able to do real applied projects with clients and get some ‘real-world’ experience, while working with faculty who have their own experiences working out in the field, was very valuable,” she said.

Phelps plans to move to Uganda later this summer and work in the human rights field there. “It’ll be good to live and work in a place where I feel like I can actually affect change.”

Another 15 students are entering the MHR program in September.

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