By Ann Nordby
Hortense Minishi has always dreamed of making the world a better place. Early in life, she set a goal of working at the United Nations to promote peace. Orphaned at age 10 and raised by an aunt, she became a human rights lawyer in her native Kenya.
As a lawyer, she worked to support and resettle asylum seekers, refugees and migrants in sub-Saharan Africa. Many of them were children affected by armed conflict.
After seven years of that work, she decided she wanted to do more than support refugees; she wanted to solve the root causes of international conflict.
Minishi is a bubbly person who likes to "leave a little sparkle wherever I go." In 2021, she received a Fulbright and Hubert Humphrey scholarship to study human rights at the University of Minnesota.
It was a gift, but also a sacrifice financially and personally, since she would have to be away from three young sons. She knew next to nothing about Minnesota and wondered, "I'm coming from Africa and I'm Black. How will I be treated there?"
But her trepidations disappeared as soon as she arrived on campus. The faculty, staff, and fellow students were welcoming and supportive. "They were very open minded and we all embraced each other, even though we are all from different cultures," she said.
Diversity is an asset
Minishi is working toward her Master of Human Rights (MHR) with a concentration in conflict, security, and diplomacy, and a minor in law. The degree program is jointly offered by the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and the College of Liberal Arts.
She joined a cohort of 15 MHR students with varied backgrounds and policy interests. This diversity is an asset to the program, Minishi explained.
"Human rights is always interdisciplinary," she said. "I'm building my international network right in my cohort."
Within the diversity there is commonality. "Human rights are universal. Kenya is a developing country, the United States is a developed country, but the challenges people face end up being very similar: the right to life, food, shelter, education; things that people champion for every single day no matter the context. They are mostly the same."
Practical experience through internships
During her first internship, Minishi worked for a Minneapolis nonprofit, Advocates for Human Rights, on its campaign against the death penalty.
For her internship last summer, she went to Geneva, Switzerland, to work on social and economic issues for underrepresented countries at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Minishi said she never could have had this internship without the financial and program support of the Humphrey School and the University of Minnesota Law School. "This is practical experience that will be useful for my future career," she said.
At the end of 2022, Minishi accompanied Law School Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, who is also a UN special rapporteur, to Kenya for a conference about the impact of counterterrorism on civil society organizations.
In recognition of all her work, in 2022 Minishi received the Exceptional Woman of Peace Award from a UN consultative organization called Pathways for Peace. She was one of only eight people in the world to receive it.
Minishi said the University of Minnesota’s MHR program has taken her career focus from regional to international, and brought her closer to her dream job of being a UN diplomat. She has gained new knowledge in coursework, practical experience in internships, and a professional network that starts with her fellow students.
"We might argue and have different ways of doing things, but the fact that we cheer each other on makes it a unique program. It's more than education—it is a life-changing experience."