Teaching Human Rights Outside the Classroom


As college-level instructors, sometimes we get constrained to the classroom. The thought of a “field trip” seems very elementary, but sometimes we need to get out of the classroom to teach human rights.

On April 4, 2016, the International Federation of Social Workers and the International Association of Schools of Social Work co-hosted the 33rd Annual Social Work Day at the United Nations (http://www.monmouth.edu/school-of-social-work/social-work-day-at-the-united-nations.aspx).  This year’s theme was Refugees and Displaced Persons: Ensuring Dignity and Worth.  The event provided social work students, faculty, and practitioners with a glimpse of what it is like to work at the UN, a formal system with its own culture, language, and protocol.  The panel was assembled to replicate UN Briefings with representation from an Ambassador, a high level UN Staff member, a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), and moderator(s).  #SWDUN2016 panelists included:

  • Ninette Kelly, Director, New York Office, UN Office of the High Commission on Refugees
  • His Excellency Deputy Permanent Representative of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Ambassador Nazifullah Salarzai
  • Guglielmo Schinna, International Organization for Migration, Head, Mental Health, Psychosocial Response & Intercultural Communications
  • Patricia Talisse, MSW Student at Fordham University from Aleppo, Syria

From a pedagogical point, taking a trip to the UN makes the learning come alive, so to say.  Students were also able to realize how the United Nations relies on civil society, opening up job possibilities they had never realized were available to them.  And while there are numerous destinations one can imagine for a human rights-oriented fieldtrip, the UN affords a unique opportunity for students to expand their individual professional endeavors and interests—from outside of the classroom to outside of the country.

The focus on refugees and displaced persons was not only relevant and timely—but it demonstrated the connection between individual work and international policy.  The very nature of the panelists’ positions—and thus their discussion—interwove issues on all levels of practice—from individuals and families, to communities, countries, and ultimately, the necessary governmental collaborations and partnerships (and more) needed to address a crisis that is impacting over 60 million people worldwide.

Perhaps most importantly for social work students, and all students for that matter, the experience was an opportunity to experience first hand that political involvement is a prerequisite for upholding human rights—and that they can, and should, be a part of the equation.  For those students who might struggle with the political side of this work, such a trip to the UN can be an awakening.  Sitting in an expansive and high-tech conference hall at the United Nations in the heart of New York City while experts from around the globe all echo the same sentiment—one that undeniably underscores the fact that these problems are the result of political crises—is an extremely powerful tool to bring awareness and interest to an emerging generation of humanitarian workers and activists.

By Christina Chiarelli-Helminiak and Pier Cicerelle

West Chester University (PA)

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