Donors give back to unique seminar

the nation's capitol

By Douglas Esser
One of the longest running courses at the University of Washington Bothell – the annual weeklong human rights seminar in Washington, D.C. – is even better thanks to alumni who experienced the trip and now support its impact.

Mary Martin, right, made two seminar trips – the first in 2000 and the second as a teaching assistant in 2002. After 9/11, she noticed the changed atmosphere, especially at the Pentagon, which had been hit, and the State Department, intent on the invasion of Iraq.

Mary MartinThe seminar affected her career choice. Now she wants more students to have that opportunity. Martin helped launch the Washington, D.C., Travel Assistance Fund at last year’s D.C. human rights alumni reunion in Bothell.

This fall, the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences covered the program fee ($575) for two of the 15 students. They were led by two graduate guides and Camille Walsh, an assistant professor who has run the seminar for four years.

“The thing that I’ve seen year after year is that students come back from this class and they realize they actually have the power to make change,” says Walsh.

Students met with lawmakers, their staffs, government agencies and nongovernmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch. A meeting with Sen. Maria Cantwell was especially productive, Walsh says, because students prepared to ask about an arms sale to Saudi Arabia, which has intervened in Yemen’s civil war with civilian casualties resulting.

“When they started off I could tell she heard their questions and then like, ‘OK this is serious.’ And she stayed with us for 45 minutes and she really thoughtfully engaged with the students. Her meeting was a standout. I was very proud,” Walsh says. 

Joren Clowers, left, is concerned about the treatment of migrant workers building stadiums for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The Persian Gulf nation has been accused of exploiting workers by holding their passports to keep them from leaving the country. Clowers asked Cantwell if she was aware one of the contractors also is a contractor on federal projects that she oversees. He says Cantwell asked her aides to look into it.

“The trip showed me I can raise a little bit of awareness and it can balloon into something much bigger than anything I could have ever dreamed,” he said.

The trip also connected his learning like nothing else. It “materializes all of this information you might be reading about,” he says.

“We may just be in D.C. to write a research paper for some credit for a class, but we can actually make real and meaningful change through the work that we’re doing,” said Clowers who plans to graduate in March with degrees in law, economics and public policy and in American and ethnic studies with a minor in human rights. 

About 450 students have participated in the Washington, D.C., Human Rights Seminar since it was started in 1990 by founding faculty member Robert Schultz. 

Martin, global studies (’01) and Master of Arts in policy studies (’03), was inspired by the seminar to work in nonprofits. She worked 10 years for Habitat for Humanity and the last two years at LifeWire, a domestic violence service agency in Bellevue.

“I hope that current students who are helped by the fund and attend the D.C. Human Rights seminar are inspired by the work being done in D.C., but remember that there is a need for committed and talented people to work here in Washington state on the same issues,” Martin says.