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The keynote alumni panel at last Friday’s Human Rights in Practice Internship Symposium offered a great chance for students to hear examples of how the internship program can pay dividends throughout one’s career. The panelists, speaking to a full room of students in the Regenstein Library, illuminated the various ways their internships have affected their lives and careers.

Nathan Wilmers, who worked with a garment worker’s union in Lesotho as a 2008 Intern and is now Assistant Professor of Work and Organizations at MIT Sloan School of Management, told students about a core class on worker rights and supply chains that he teaches to MBA candidates. “In that class, I’ve got two slides on Lesotho and what I learned from working there,” he said. “So the human rights internship experience has threaded through my life, even when I’m teaching. Which I think is a real testament to the long-lasting impact of that experience.”

Liliana Zaragoza spoke about her career trajectory, which led her from a 2009 internship with the New York Immigration Coalition to groundbreaking work as Assistant Counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. In that role, she’s currently challenging various incarnations of the NYPD’s gang database, in addition to suing a prosecutor in Mississippi for striking black citizens from juries at more than four times the rate of whites. “This is a completely new kind of case,” she pointed out. “We’re hoping to actually change the criminal justice system.” 

Ben Kolak, a 2005 Intern with the Cyrano Project who went on to found Scrappers Film Group, talked about his drive to produce creative projects whose theses can be explored both through the projects themselves and in accompanying campaigns, often in ways that haven’t been tried before. “That mindset is something that I very much feel like I got during my time studying Human Rights at the University, and through my internship,” he explained. 

For her part, Jakina Dortch highlighted the power of the internship program to engage students in work beyond Chicago. A 2011 Intern, Jakina had already begun working with Chicago youth before her internship with We-ACTX in Kigali, Rwanda. “As someone who knew that she wanted to work in the black community, it was really important to me to get a well-rounded, well-versed experience throughout college—not just working in Chicago or even in the States,” Jakina said. “That was a big part of why I applied for the Human Rights Internship.” Jakina, who is now Manager of Higher Education and Scholarship at Chicago Youth Programs, said she “came back with a better appreciation of how to not just insert myself into a space but truly be an advocate. And that was really phenomenal for me.”  

See photos from the symposium.