Agents of Change

Mike and Cherri Disque made the decision to pay for 22 other undergraduate- and graduate-level students to go on SMU's annual ‘Holocaust Poland’ trip.

By Denise Gee
SMU News

DALLAS – Worldly wise retired FBI agent/SMU alumnus Mike Disque ’64, meet world changer-to-be/SMU sophomore Sara Ellington ’18.

Mike-Disque-Sara-Sara Ellington-Cherri-Disque
Mike Disque, Sara Ellington and Cherri Disque look over proofs of a forthcoming book about the Holocaust Poland trip.

That was the scenario in 2015, when Mike, a Golden Mustang who lives in Colorado Springs, Colo., with his wife Cherri, received a Tele-Pony call from Sara, a Irving native aiming to thank the Disques for their support of SMU.

Mike remembers the exchange was full of pleasantries. Then she dropped some knowledge on him. He thought he’d pretty much heard and seen everything there is to see in life.

“She said she was double-majoring in human rights and journalism. Human rights? And journalism? I was intrigued,” he recalls, “and more than a little skeptical.”

Mike’s intelligence-gathering skills kicked in. “You might say I interrogated her,” he says.

For a seasoned FBI vet, the stereotypical image of a human rights activist is a well meaning but naïve sort inclined to sign petitions and hold protest banners. As for journalists, most of his career was spent dodging them as he navigated dangerous, covert operations to combat organized crime in Chicago.

“You might say I got a pretty good grilling – but a good-natured one,” Sara says.

“She hung in there, though,” Mike says. And she really impressed me with her professionalism, and her sincere desire to make a difference in the world.”

Unbeknownst to Sara, her call to Mike occurred while he had been thinking of providing students with some meaningful opportunities not covered by tuition.

One of the gifts to SMU stemmed from a related question Mike asked.

“She told me she wanted to go on the ‘Holocaust Poland’ trip. I didn’t know SMU offered such a trip – and that it had offered it for 20 years. That’s when I learned about the Embrey Human Rights Program. And the more I learned, the more I thought, that’s it. This is who and what I want to help.”

Mike and Cherri made the decision to pay for Sara and 22 other undergraduate- and graduate-level students to go on the Poland trip. They also have helped fund SMU Study Abroad summer internships.

“Their gift came as a huge surprise,” Sara says. “It’s truly the trip of a lifetime – one that means more to me than they’ll ever know.”

One factor behind the couple’s decision was the lasting impact of a trip abroad that Mike took when he was the same age as Sara.

“That was in the early 1960s, just 15 years after the devastation of World War II. A lot of destruction was still visible. A lot of re-building was going on.” But one building project amounted to Cold War history in the making: The rise of the Berlin Wall, “which went up right as we leaving.”

Studying abroad “significantly helped expand my horizons, and proved a great advantage in my career,” says Mike, who also credits his time in the U.S. Air Force, which he entered in 1964 after earning a B.A. in social science from SMU.

“Cherri and I are firm believers that every young person should have eye-opening, life-enriching opportunities,” he says.

During a recent trip to Dallas, Mike and Cherri visited SMU to see Sara, with whom they now keep in touch regularly. The trio and others gathered in the Embrey Human Rights Program conference room. Color copies of the forthcoming book, No Resting Place: Holocaust Poland, were spread across the table after Sara had helped proofread the copy in preparation for the trip she’s now on.

As Embrey Human Rights Director Rick Halperin discussed some of the places shown on the pages, and the trip’s emotional and physical intensity, students flowed in and out of the office, some of them dropping off paperwork for the Poland trip. Upon realizing the duo responsible for their travel opportunities were there to be thanked in person, one student expressed his gratitude to the Disques, promising to share with them a short documentary he plans to create about the trip.

“It’s encouraging to see this generation much more plugged in to world events and technology than my generation was,” Mike says.

Also encouraging is the passion, drive and sincerity the students reflect.

“We’re all just so thankful …” Sara says, leading Mike to quip, “that I didn’t hang up on you!”

“No really,” he says. “Cherri and I can see you’re happy. We know you’re on your way.”

Halperin, nodding, adds, “Our students will be making this world a better place.”

“And she’ll be reporting on that world,” Mike says, pointing to Sara.

About SMU's annual "Holocaust Poland" trip


Sobibor Poland
Sobibor, Poland


Thirty-nine members of the SMU community are participating in the “Holocaust Poland” study trip Dec. 18-30, sponsored by the Embrey Human Rights Program. This year marks the 20th anniversary of Prof. Rick Halperin leading the two-week immersive experience.

The group represents the largest one ever to make the journey (with the second-largest being 24). The pilgrims are visiting cities and death camps throughout Poland, where during World War II, some 5 million people were murdered during the Nazi, Germany, occupation (1939-1945). Poland also became the epicenter of Hitler’s racial war of annihilation, the Holocaust, which claimed 11 million lives, most of them Jews.

Travelers attest the experience is “powerfully transformative” – so much so it led to the creation of the Embrey Human Rights Program at SMU in 2006. A year prior, Dallas philanthropist and SMU alumna Lauren Embrey ’06 had taken the journey with her two sons. Afterward Lauren and her sister, Gayle, were inspired to provide a financial gift that created the unique human rights program, now in its 10th year.

SMU is currently one of only seven universities in the nation to offer an undergraduate degree in human rights. Besides the variety of powerful trips, the Dedman College of Humanities & Sciences program also continues to develop a compelling mix of human rights courses and hosts numerous public learning events.

Read blogs from "Holocaust Poland" trips:

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