Masters program helps agencies study challenges
Students in Arizona State University’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences are gaining valuable real-world experience while helping local nonprofit agencies study ethical challenges ranging from domestic violence issues to human trafficking and from workers’ rights to refugee outreach. The semester-long “Research in Ethics and Public Affairs” coursework is a part of the New College social justice and human rights master’s degree program at the West campus.
Among the Valley organizations that partnered with the degree program and benefited from the students’ work during the Spring 2010 semester are the O’Connor House, Arizona Interfaith Alliance for Worker Justice, Community Outreach & Advocacy for Refugees (COAR) and Arizona Lost Boys Center, Food for the Hungry, Arizona League to End Regional Trafficking (ALERT) and Radio Campesina.
“Throughout the semester our graduate students partnered with community organizations and discussed and studied ethical questions that were of interest to those partner organizations,” said Amit Ron, an assistant professor in the New College Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences. “The students worked in groups of four, which encouraged discussions from different perspectives and allowed the students to learn from each other while working toward the solutions to ethical questions and issues confronting the organizations.”
The students produced three projects at the end of the semester, said Ron, who earned his doctoral degree in political science from the University of Minnesota and held academic positions at Gustavus Adolphus College, University of Michigan and University of Toronto before joining the New College faculty in 2008. An academic study of specific issues was drafted by each group, which was followed by a presentation to representatives of each of the six organizations.
The final step was to translate findings and recommendations into a “product” that could be used by the organization.
Rema-Therese Beydoun, Kuol Awan, Chelsey Dawes and Matthew Warren developed their collaboration with COAR and the Arizona Lost Boys Center. The group worked on ethical issues that arise in youth mentorship programs that include mentees from different cultures. At the conclusion of the project they produced and delivered to COAR/Arizona Lost Boys Center “The Mentorship Handbook: A guide to fostering successful relationships for mentors and mentees of different cultures.” Included in the handbook were detailed examinations of mentor roles and responsibilities, guidelines to foster respectful relationships, dynamics of the mentor-mentee relationship, the sharing of cultures and a template for mentor-mentee meeting reports.
Beydoun, who expects to receive her graduate degree in December, is the program director for COAR.
“The project allowed me to analyze my professional field of interest from an academic lens,” said Beydoun, who would like to work on refugee or human rights issues in a government or nonprofit setting before pursuing a law degree. “I believe it is extremely important to contextualize the work that one does as a practitioner and to understand the various ethical issues that play a role in the functionality of an organization and the people it serves. This project did just that.”
She believes the project epitomizes the strength of the master’s degree program, which was launched in 2008.
“The course project is a poignant example of the wonderful work being done through the students and professors associated with the social justice and human rights program,” said Beydoun, who came to ASU’s West campus as an undergraduate in 2005 and earned her B.A. in history in 2008.
“The program has a strong community focus, and this project was a perfect example of the ways in which students of social justice and human rights can actively engage with, and become embedded with, the community while also exercising their academic curiosity, as well as their drive to positively impact their communities.”
Another project, undertaken on behalf of the O’Connor House, explored domestic violence and how media coverage plays a critical role in how a society interprets, evaluates and seeks solutions to social problems. The O’Connor House serves pregnant women over the age of 18 who are in a crisis pregnancy and need assistance in order to choose life for their unborn child. The home also provides shelter and aid to the existing children of these women.
“Working on the O’Connor House project was eye-opening,” said Danielle Ahlberg, who was joined on the team by Alexandria Delong, Faith Brown and Sam Naser. “I was aware of the prevalence of domestic violence in our society, but I didn’t understand the impact that media reporting has on the perpetuation of it.”
The team researched media coverage of domestic violence, looking at studies that have been conducted in Washington and Rhode Island, and also completed their own case studies. The study was grounded in the perspective that most Americans learn about institutional problems such as domestic violence through the media.
“The project is important because it speaks to a relevant and prominent issue that is often overlooked,” said Ahlberg, who received her B.A. in interdisciplinary studies from North Central University in Minnesota in 2001 and an M.A. in teaching English as a foreign language from Columbia International University in South Carolina in 2002. She will receive her master’s in social justice and human rights in August.
“Domestic violence is almost like a silent disease,” she says. “It has spread through communities without acknowledgement, impacting young and old, rich and poor, with no deference to race, ethnicity or religion.”
At the completion of the project, Ahlberg and her team delivered “A Guide to the Best Practices for Reporting on a Domestic Violence Crime.” Included in the media-focused guide was a local experts’ contact sheet, a list of common myths about domestic violence, and guidelines for media coverage, such as, “avoid excusing the offender,” “avoid casting blame on the victim,” “use a variety of sources,” and “keep the focus of the report on the domestic violence, rather than secondary stories.”
“The social justice and human rights program here is unique and cutting edge,” she said. “Having opportunities like the one we were presented through professor Ron’s class is extremely important in that they allow students to have practical experiences in the field. A book and notes education is important, but not if there is no practical supplementation.
“Being on the ground, getting dirty in the field of human rights, is the only way to go if one wishes to succeed as an advocate and emerge from an educational institution prepared for the future that lies ahead.”
For Ron, the experience is an opportunity for his students to gain confidence and shine.
“We are bringing state-of-the-art academic discussion to help our students explore solutions in social justice and human rights,” he said. “This is a chance for the students to form community partnerships, identify ethical challenges within the organization, and offer solutions in a face-to-face, presentation format.
“It isn’t service learning, and it’s not a simple consultation, nor are we pretending to solve problems," he added. "The students bring informed knowledge about these issues and address head-on real, ethical challenges.”