Advocacy Seminar fosters real-world change

Isabella Gentile, Features Editor

If you look deeper than the Core classes and other major requirements at RWU, you’ll find a course that is like no other at the university. The Advocacy Seminar, currently run by Professor Adam Braver, features students who dedicate their time to helping a scholar at risk from anywhere in the world.

Around ten to twelve students are enrolled in the course, which fulfills a requirement in the creative writing Core Concentration, but it can be repeated multiple times for elective credit. Size varies each semester but usually enrollment stays at a relatively small number. Typically, the course runs on Monday nights from 5 to 8 p.m.

Students in the class work directly with the non-government organization Scholars at Risk (SAR), which provides them with a short list of scholars to choose from. This organization helps scholars who have been imprisoned, or are at risk of imprisonment, as a result of their academic and humanitarian efforts. Emma Ledoux, a student in the Advocacy Seminar, described how a scholar’s case is chosen for the class.

We typically choose the one that we can best advocate for on this campus and in the local area — one that we believe we can promote to our community,” Ledoux said.

This semester, the class has focused its efforts on helping Ilham Tohti, an economics professor from the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in China. Tohti had started a blog called Uyghur Online to promote peaceful dialogue between the Uyghur people, a Muslim minority primarily living in Xinjiang, and the Han Chinese, the country’s ethnic majority. Tohti was arrested and charged with separatism for voicing these ideas and was sentenced to life in prison, an unexpected and severe punishment that drew criticism from the U.S. State Department and European Union.

Several members of the class embarked on a trip to Washington, D.C. in March to participate in SAR Student Advocacy Day, which Ledoux notes was definitely substantial in achieving the group’s goals. They gained the support of Rhode Island’s Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who is writing an official letter on behalf of Tohti, and also had the opportunity to educate a number of other Congresspeople on the issue.

“The increased exposure of Tohti’s case might allow him to gain visitation rights again and/or better living conditions,” Ledoux said.

Although it may not be widely publicized at school, students in the seminar have been key players in the release of five imprisoned scholars over the nine years that Professor Braver has been teaching the class. Erin Miller, another member of the class, attests to the course being student-run and describes its uniqueness as a whole. 

“This provides a new type of course experience I have never come across at my years at Roger thus far,” Miller said. “I like how it is student-driven and we essentially control the course rate and actions put forth to help SAR.”

The Advocacy Seminar enhances student’s minds as they are pushed to make real change in the broader community and get to help people who desperately need it along the way. The course is full of real-world, hands-on experience, and students from all majors are welcome to join.

“We encourage people to sign up — the sooner in their college career, the better,” Ledoux said.