By M.A. Student Harry Scherer

Both new and returning students in the human rights program met on August 25 in the Columbus School of Law for an orientation to the program. 

The day began with an introduction of the Institute for Human Ecology, the CUA institute that grants the master’s degree in human rights, by the new executive director Russell Hittinger, Ph.D. Hittinger is returning to CUA after earlier stints as an adjunct faculty member in the Columbus School of Law, a tenured professor in the philosophy department, and most recently as a visiting ordinary professor in the school of business and economics.

William Saunders, J.D., director of the program, explained the goal of the one-year program and encouraged students to seek help from the program’s patrons: St. Thomas the Apostle, St. John Fisher, St. Josephine Bakhita, Pope John Paul II, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Saunders then introduced two faculty members of the program: Chen Guangcheng and David Walsh, Ph.D. Walsh, who has taught at the university since 1984, offered a reflection on the larger themes and assumptions of the program, recalling that the Church’s notion of rights does not originate in Enlightenment liberalism, but in older, medieval conception of rights as intimately connected to justice.  

Chen is a human rights lawyer and a subject of a 2002 Newsweek profile called “Barefoot Lawyers,” a reference to Chen’s legal advocacy spare a license to practice law. Chen, who was blinded as a young boy in the 1970s, now lives in the States; Saunders emphasized that Chen’s blindness can be attributed to unfulfilled promises of the Mao regime to provide for the healthcare of the Chinese poor. 

Students then traveled on the metro from Brookland to the Museum of the Bible on the corner of Virginia Ave. and 4th St. Upon arriving, Saunders led the group up to the second floor of the building, where an exhibition on human rights was on display. Saunders directed attention to the story of Josephine Bakhita, a Sudanese woman who was sold into slavery as a girl and is now a patron of survivors of human trafficking. 

Fr. Ambrose Ekeroku, a Discalced Carmelite priest and a full-time student in the human rights program, encouraged the group to pray to St. Bakhita according to the prayer on the digital display. “Saint Josephine Bakhita, as a child, you were sold as a slave and had to spend untold difficulties and suffering,” the group began.

Saunders expressed excitement about the start of a new school year, adding the program will form students in “an exploration of the Catholic approach to human rights,” a perspective that he called “vital and often neglected.”  

Suzanne Beecher, director of student programs at the IHE, said she’s looking forward to the upcoming academic year and highlighted the background of this year’s cohort: “We are very blessed this year to have students from across the globe, many of whom already have experience in advocating for human rights.”

Fr. Ekeroku said he’s looking forward to the start of the academic year: “I want to develop the capacity and relevant skills not only to be the voice of the voiceless, defender of the defenseless, but also to efficiently and effectively empower the demand side to raise the accountability stake and seek redress.”

He continued, “I want to raise an army of human rights advocates that will ensure that the human dignity of every person is upheld and protected, everywhere, at all times.”

Veronica Smaldone, a part-time human rights student who also works as the assistant to the associate dean of undergraduate programs at CUA, said that her “personal joy deepens as we learn just how exceptional it is to be a human person, and the program gives us the tools to engage a hungry world with that joy.”

The academic formation provided by the program is more generalized than other graduate programs. This fall, for example, the full-time cohort will take courses in a variety of disciplines across the university: international human rights law; Christian political thought; an independent study with Walsh on Samuel Moyn’s Christian Human Rights (2015); business, human rights, and ESG; foundations of Christian moral life; and biomedical ethics.