International Human Rights in Theory and Practice
Summer College 2017
Hello! My name is Pooja, and I am a rising senior at the Middlesex County Academy for Allied Health and Biomedical Sciences. I live in Edison, New Jersey, but prior to that I lived in both Kansas and California. I enjoy writing, and I have been writing for the school newspaper since 6th grade. Besides writing and studying (which I do a lot), I enjoy dancing; two years ago I co-founded a charity that raises funds through the performing arts. As I pace my room, picking through my belongings and packing my bags for Cornell University, where I will be taking International Human Rights in Theory and Practice, I am nervous yet excited for what the next three weeks will bring. As a daughter of Cornell University alumni, I'm beyond thrilled to have this chance to explore Cornell for myself, and I look forward to meeting everybody!
It is 5:37 a.m. on Friday morning as I stare at the golden rays of the rising sun reflecting off the waters of Beebe Lake, across from the suspension bridge and the gorge. The sound of the water rushing through the nooks and crannies of the gorge and the birds chirping lightly fills the brisk air. Around me, I spot a few other early risers jogging on the trail around the lake, and I feel relieved knowing I'm not the only early-morning-let's-go-watch-the-sunrise type of person.
The week has come to an end, which means assignments are due as soon as we get back to class, but also a relaxing weekend. Just in this first week, my classmates and I have already read around 300 pages of our international human rights textbook, which looks intimidating, with over 1,500 pages of pure text and no images. We've taken at least 20 pages of notes, and spent countless hours in the common room on the dorm floor debating whether human rights are universal or culturally relative, and whether or not there is real change taking place in the world. In class, we've reviewed our readings and debated over cultural and social human rights issues that bother us on the most basic of levels. The coursework is hard; a lot of dense textbook reading every night accompanied by treaty deciphering, and tons of mind-boggling and eye-opening ideas that have made my classmates and I read the text twice, maybe thrice, just to understand the true viewpoints and theories behind it.
We all expected to be challenged; it's the basic reason why we are at Cornell, but none of us were truly prepared for this academic storm that would soak our minds with our vocabulary words and enlighten our minds with conflicting viewpoints. Like our TA explained, if human rights law was black and white, concrete in a sense, then the textbook would not be this thick. Law is always changing, and human rights is a topic that has many intricacies and debates woven within it. Though the workload is heavy, I find myself fully immersed in the readings and I feel my curiosity for knowledge grow; I experience blissful joy in my work and it feels good to be truly learning.
However, it's nice to take a break from the academic realities for a while; my classmates and I found ourselves talking about our childhood memories and sharing vivid stories as we watch the sunset by Libe Slope almost every day. I even had my own share of fun as I rolled down the slope (I was careful, don't worry, mom!), which inspired two bystanders watching me to do the same, leading up to a long conversation on the physics of rolling down such a large hill. It feels refreshing to finally escape the suburbs of New Jersey and be able to mentally grow and escape in a place of such natural wonder.
I stare at the drooping tree ahead of me, while the McGraw Tower sits directly to my right; I am on Libe Slope with a couple of my friends, and as the five of us bury our noses in our textbooks and scribble notes furiously, I find myself reflecting upon my second week here at CUSC. It has been nothing short of delightful as I've eaten Indian food (finally) in Collegetown, visited both Cascadilla and Fall Creek Gorges, studied in the Law School library, and even drank fresh blueberry juice at the Ithaca Farmers Market.
Class and the various reading assignments take up a portion of my day, but is never something I dread. I am absolutely enchanted by the wide array of topics that fall into the category of human rights, and as we explore different types of human rights violations, I feel my brain soaking up information like a sponge, absorbing more as the days pass by. I find it hard to have hope after hearing about the massive genocides that have taken place all throughout history, the numerous human rights violations, and the still uncompensated masses of people who have had their rights so wrongfully stolen from them. Yet, I find myself talking to my classmates about the future, and how we, despite being so small,could change things for the better. It feels good to know that there are people with similar mindsets as mine, and it feels even better that these same people have become your best friends.
On Friday, after class ended early, my friends and I headed to an Indian restaurant in Collegetown for lunch. After filling our stomachs with various curries and spicy vegetable dishes, we went for what was supposed to be a short walk down to Cascadilla Gorge, soon we ended up next to the Ithaca Commons, where we stopped at an ice cream parlor to taste scrumptious rolled ice cream. Soon, I found myself leading the way to the Fall Creek gorge across campus. Despite the road being mainly uphill and tiring to walk on, especially in the light humid drizzle, it was exhilarating to be nearly as physically active as I had been mentally and socially in the past few weeks. To most, the walk uphill is a dreaded one, filled with sighs and grunting as bodies start to feel the ache. To me, the walk uphill is enjoyable; I see the view before me change and get more majestic as the altitude gets higher. It is so wonderful to be surrounded by friends, nature, and knowledge. At the end, the walk up the large slopes and hills is always worth the view from the top.
There is something truly magical about Cornell; maybe it is the way the clock tower chimes elegantly, or the way the windows of Uris Library are illuminated by the pink-orange-fire skies every night at 8:43 pm. Whatever the source, this magic has crept into the darkest windows of my soul and has taken over the smallest cracks and crevices in my mind, letting my thoughts flow free, not different from the water that rushes through the gorges here at Cornell.
The first day home was unreal; it felt uncanny and strange to wake up in my own bed, find my breakfast was just downstairs instead of downstairs and across the street, and sip my mom's tea while reading the newspaper. It was almost hard to believe that my time at Cornell was over because I had slowly learned to call my dorm room home, and think of my friends and mentors as family. Upon my arrival home, I was greeted by my devilish little brother, who grinned ear to ear, knowing he could now bother me every day, since he hadn't been able to for the past few weeks. It felt good to be at home, but I found myself nostalgically pressing the home button on my iPhone just to look at my wallpaper: a picture of my friends and I at the Ithaca Farmers Market.
During my last few days at Cornell, our class participated in a "fact-finding" mission, during which our class was split into different groups to form human rights organizations who dealt with mass atrocities. My group's task, as representatives of Amnesty International, was to visit the pretend troubled scene of the aftermath of a violent mine protest and interview persons who could provide us with more knowledge about the incident. As an organization, we would later draft legal memorandums to our supervisors to debrief them on the situation in the country of "Moloqua." The activity consisted of interviews with various mine workers, politicians, and government doctors, who, of course, were played by our TA's, professor, and other law school professors. It was incredibly interesting to see how the same people who taught us about international human rights law were now asking us what Amnesty International meant; the interviewees were so in character that they even dressed up and offered us "tea and biscuits" during the meetings.
As our time at Cornell came to an end, a few of my friends and I even decided to take action to help fight for social justice. The four of us were already going to take our newfound knowledge home and start social action projects in our local communities, but we decided to form an organization through which we could share our experiences, write articles and opinion pieces, and even empower other teenagers looking to partake in similar actions in their respective communities. We plan to bring awareness to our local social injustices and human rights issues by writing about them, and our project now includes chapters in three different states (and counting). Our organization is only a few weeks old at the moment, but I am thrilled to be part of something so constructive, and I look forward to bringing change, even if it is small, to my own community.
This was my first time spending a full three weeks away from home, and my first time living on a university campus. Living independently, away from my parents, was a whole new experience that seemed scary in the beginning, but upon realizing that most other people were in the same boat, it became enjoyable. Though I missed my dad's sweet corn soup and my mom doing most of my laundry, the idea of self-sufficiency was strangely fitting. Now that I know what it's like to spend time separated from home and my family, I am optimistic I will be able to handle similar pressures a year from now. In addition, Summer College inspired me not only in academic growth, but also social growth: I met people from more than 17 countries (which I kept count of), and I learned lots about other countries and cultures through my many peers and friends, whom I already miss dearly. Overall, the three weeks I spent at Cornell were unforgettable, from all the 3 am's in the common room, to the sunset-slope-rolling sessions on the Libe Slope, Cornell University Summer College was easily one of the most enriching experiences of my life.