Publication: Communique

Author: Robin DeMerell

As the United Nations celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its regular session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, a dozen WestConn students witnessed some of that history.

From May 30 to June 17, the students, accompanied by WCSU Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Social Work Field Education Dr. Kit Hinga and Friar Michael Lasky, traveled to Switzerland as part of a human rights course.

“My hope is that this experience deepened students’ understanding of human conditions different from their own, and that this understanding will move the students as individuals in their choices toward activism and careers,” said Hinga.

Part of this year’s President’s Initiatives Fund, “Step into the World of Geneva” exposed students to human conditions and experiences through the rich and diverse lens of the U.N. Students participated in formal classes, attended daily open sessions of the Human Rights Council, dialogued with various nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and met with U.S. representatives and delegates to the U.N. The students enjoyed access to all the meetings of the U.N. Council.

After being briefed on culture and attending a five-hour orientation, students were exposed to French — one of Switzerland’s four official languages — by Jamie Gelbtuch, a freelance cross-cultural trainer from Westchester County. French is the primary language spoken in Geneva, an international city with 38 percent of its population foreign nationals.

By learning simple words and phrases, such as “bonjour,” “merci,” and “s’il vous plait,” (hello, thank you and please), students not only made the experience easier for themselves, but they were considered respectful.

“We felt it was important to give the students basics in French. People are more receptive to you if you show interest in their culture,” said Melissa Gluckman, WCSU’s international services coordinator. “We’re looking at the world through our cultural lens.”

Students reflected daily with WCSU professors and faculty from the Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Relations as well as staff from various NGOs. These learning opportunities featured exposure to human, political, economic, cultural, religious and geographic differences in our world.

The 12 participating students were selected out of 29 who applied. Students were required to write essays that included why they were interested in the program. The three-credit course required students to keep journals and prepare a multi-media presentation of their experience.

The students who went to Switzerland have majors that range from political science to music education. Four of the students are studying social work: Barbara Bowers, Nikki Singer, Nicole Fortier and Olivia Schulze.

“Part of the profession is to be aware and involved and to learn about advocacy,” said Singer. The other students are Nate Cullerton, Jenna Sommo, Dan Lovallo, Fahima Chowdhury, William Kadeg, Adam Schwartz, Dave Rothlfing and Mike Carlo.

A music major, Lovallo said he wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to learn about another country “and how human rights are affected in another country.” Kadeg, also a music major, said he thought the experience would round out his education at WestConn because he’s been so focused on the music program.

Gluckman said this was a unique opportunity for students not only from a cultural standpoint, but especially in light of the council’s 60th anniversary and WestConn’s connection with the Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Relations. “It’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Gluckman.