December 15, 2017
By Denise Gee
DALLAS (SMU) — Since SMU launched its bachelor of arts degree in human rights in 2012 – becoming one of only five in the U.S. to offer it – 79 students have embraced the ultimate “world changer” degree to embark on careers ranging from medicine to business to politics.
Samantha Matthews in Romania in 2015
Five years later, SMU seniors Abigail Buck and Grace Caputo will earn the same uncommon distinction at Commencement Convocation Dec. 16. They also plan to follow career paths very similar to the first pioneering duo to earn the degree: Samantha Matthews and Shireen Tavakoli.
Samantha recently returned to Dallas to work as executive director of a nonprofit associated with the Texas Legends basketball team (an affiliate of the Dallas Mavericks) after earning a master’s degree in early education and serving Teach for America in the New York City area. And Shireen, who followed her three human rights-focused degrees from SMU with a law degree, is now a legal fellow for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Washington, D.C.
As a student preparing to leave SMU, Samantha discussed wanting to help disadvantaged youth via nonprofit work – and Abigail hopes to do the same. Shireen, whose family emigrated to the United States from Iran, long knew she wanted to practice human rights-focused law – and Grace plans to follow suit.
Abigail, Grace, Shireen and Samantha share the SMU Embrey Human Rights Program’s mission to defend the rights of marginalized or exploited people and eradicate social injustice. All four young women, who call Texas home, share another goal: To dispel misconceptions about human rights work.
“A human rights career can seem a bit abstract,” Samantha says. But in an increasingly globalized marketplace – where progressive employers value cultural diversity, environmental awareness and understanding of the human condition – she and Shireen say the skills they developed at SMU give them a competitive edge.
“People with human rights degrees aren’t just citizens of a country, they’re citizens of the world,” says Samantha, a Canadian national and global traveler raised in Argyle, Texas.
While working toward a master’s degree earned in 2015 from City University of New York Hunter College, Samantha recalls one of her first job interviews. As the interviewer scanned Samantha’s resume, the SMU degree caught her eye.
“Human rights?! I didn’t know that (degree) existed,” the prospective employer said. “What can you do with that?”
“Well, this job,” Samantha said with a smile. She explained how human rights-focused academic and volunteer work teaches people “to see life’s bigger picture – to understand what issues people face and why.” And from an educational perspective, Samantha has learned “not to just teach from the textbook, but to teach the whole child.”
She landed the job.
Just prior, Samantha had been chosen from 50,000 applicants to join the prestigious Teach for America (TFA) corps, for which she would spend two years helping under-resourced public schools. Samantha became the first New York-based TFA member ever to work with 2-year-olds, teaching preschool for FirstStepNYC/SCO Family of Services and Harlem Village Academies’ special education division.
In January of this year she realized her ultimate goal: to lead a community-focused non-profit. She’s executive director of the Frisco-based Texas Legends Care, for which the NBA G League basketball team Texas Legends (affiliated with the Dallas Mavericks) helps disadvantaged children learn character-building and teamwork skills via educational and sports initiatives.
Now that she’s back in Texas, Samantha has enjoyed rekindling her friendship with the three Myanmar-born sisters she mentored as a SMU student volunteer for the large refugee community at Vickery Meadow. “Two of the sisters have graduated from high school; they’re now in college,” she says with pride. She also continues the work she’s done since age 16 for Hearts Across Romania, a charitable organization that supports orphaned Romanian children.
Samantha also wants to promote the work of SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Program, which helped channel her compassion and skill into a career. “The work they do is vital,” she says. “If people aren’t exposed to important issues, or don’t even know they exist, they won’t be invested in making a lasting difference.”
Shortly after Shireen received her three SMU degrees – in human rights, international studies and political science – she left for El Salvador to help lead a Embrey Human Rights Program Student Leadership Initiative group that for several weeks researched issues ranging from human trafficking to gang violence.
Shireen Tavakoli showing her human rights wristband: "There is no such thing as a lesser person."
Soon afterward, Shireen was offered the chance to work for U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, for whom she developed the skill of drafting congressional inquiries on behalf of the legislator’s 30th District of Texas constituents. She also organized the congresswoman’s annual peace conference.
During her two years of “very fulfilling” work, Shireen successfully applied to UCLA School of Law, where she began studying August 2014 – and earned accolades in international and humanitarian law. Before receiving her J.D. this summer, she served as staff editor for UCLA’s “Journal of International Law & Foreign Affairs,” organized a migration-policy symposium, and competed in the Clara Barton International Humanitarian Law Competition – an experiential legal competition exposing law students to the real-world challenges faced by international human rights lawyers during times of armed conflict.
Shireen is natural fit for her first fulltime legal position with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Currently she’s responsible for drafting determination assessments on whether asylum-seekers in the Caribbean qualify for refugee status.
“Being an immigrant definitely shaped my life’s work,” she says. “Even as a child in Iran, I was very sensitive to human rights violations happening around me – especially the inequality between men and women.” After building a new life with her family in Plano and ultimately becoming a U.S. citizen, “I’ve felt obligated to take advantage of every opportunity to bring about positive change.”
DECEMBER GRADS ABIGAIL BUCK AND GRACE CAPUTO
Abigail Buck and Grace Caputo have more in common than sharing a major and a sorority (Alpha Chi Omega). Both credit the SMU Embrey Human Rights Program’s on-and-off-campus learning opportunities, and extracurricular athletic training, for strengthening their resolve to effect meaningful change in the world.
For Abigail, the physical stamina and camaraderie developed as a Mustang Mountaineer (a group of SMU rock-climbing enthusiasts) was a core component of successfully completing B.A. degrees in both human rights and international studies while also working part-time for SMU’s Preschool and volunteering for CitySquare’s Food Pantry in South Dallas.
Abigail calls her human rights endeavors “game changers” – especially her first class, “Gender and Human Rights,” taught by Dr. Joci Caldwell-Ryan, and the SMU’s Civil Rights Pilgrimage learning experience through the Deep South. “Being able to connect with others wanting to understand and solve important societal problems was immensely motivating,” she says.
The longtime advocate for children’s rights is hoping to find a nonprofit job in her home city of Houston. Meanwhile, her academic and volunteer work focused on individuals struggling with poverty and homelessness has left her with one conclusion: “Just giving people groceries or a job or a home won’t solve the root cause of the problem. It will take a community effort.”
Frisco native Grace has long been committed to looking out for the lives of others – her earliest calling was being a life-guard. As she pursued her SMU B.A. degrees in both political science and human rights, however, she became committed to going to law school and caring for the “unseen victims” of mass incarceration – specifically those lacking adequate legal representation or mental health treatment.
Being a SMU Tower Scholar has been especially advantageous, she says. “The program puts a real-world spin on important issues and helps people prepare for careers in change-making through public policy.”
The academically and athletically fit student has held a number of campus leadership roles, and even competed in SMU’s Dance Marathon. For professional enrichment she has served as an intern for Johnson & Silver Law Firm and currently is working with the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute for Texas, which advocates for better conditions for Texas jail inmates.
During this summer’s SMU Embrey Human Rights Program’s tour of death-row facilities, Grace Caputo ’17 visited with John Thompson, who spent 18 years (14 on death row) in a Louisiana State Penitentiary for a crime he did not commit. Thompson died of a heart attack not long after this photo was taken.
While at SMU, Grace has participated in a number of University-sponsored trips, including a South Africa learning adventure and a visit to Italy to study the Holocaust and genocide. Even after her graduation, she plans to join the Embrey Human Rights Program’s longtime “Holocaust Poland” trip this December 17-30.
Her most transformational moment occurred during the human rights program’s death row tour last summer, she says. “Everything changed the first time I stepped into a prison.” There she witnessed “a panorama of suffering,” from inmates forced to provide free labor and endure inhumane conditions. She also met with death row-exonerees whose wrongful convictions had ruined their lives – but have served to inspire her.
“I’m so grateful to have experienced that up-close, so I can better understand what my future clients will face on a daily basis,” Grace says. She has treasured being able to attend powerful SMU-sponsored conferences (such as a recent one on human trafficking), and greatly values her mentors within the Embrey Human Rights Program, calling them “exactly the kind of people I want to be in the future.”
She’s also thankful for the opportunities that await. “Saving someone’s life will be priceless.”
MUSTANG TO MUSTANG: REAL-WORLD ADVICE
With five years’ career experience, SMU’s first human rights graduates Samantha Matthews and Shireen Tavakoli offer the following advice for new grads Abigail Buck and Grace Caputo – and all SMU students:
“Be open-minded and creative in whatever job opportunity comes your way and feels right,” Samantha says. “You can always tailor it to your strengths and passions while you learn new skills and build on your ultimate goal. Just keep your heart in the right place.”
“Embrace and cherish the opportunities to take meaningful educational courses and travel with groups,” Shireen says. “Volunteer for community organizations doing work that’s important to you. As you advance in your career, you’ll have less chances to engage in such transformational learning experiences.”
What’s more, never lose hope.
“Moments of doubt in our lives are a constant,” Shireen says, “but no joy is better than finally finding your place in the world, despite all the challenges your path may impose.”
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