Q&A: Dinskelspiel Award recipient Alexis Kallen talks public service

July 5, 2018, 12:01 a.m.

Recent Stanford graduate Alexis Kallen ’18 has traveled around the world to gain a deeper understanding of human rights abuses and hopes to pursue a career as an international human rights lawyer. During her time at Stanford, she spearheaded the effort to replace the Scary Path to promote campus safety in light of campus sexual assault and served as the chair of Stanford in Government. At Commencement, she was honored the Dinkelspiel award, which recognized her positive impact on undergraduate education. She is interning at the Supreme Court this summer, and will pursue her a master’s degree as a Rhodes Scholar starting this fall.


The Daily sat down with Kallen to talk about her meaningful experiences and aspirations for public service.  


The Stanford Daily (TSD): How did you get into human rights abuses and international law?

Alexis Kallen (AK): At a young age, I realized my own vulnerabilities in American society. That led me on a quest to try to understand vulnerability in general, and who in the scope of the global context might face more vulnerabilities within their societies. That got me focused on refugee women from a very young age. In high school, I was very involved in a political organization as well as a United Nations (UN) foundation called Girl Up. They were instrumental in introducing me to all of the issues facing girls in developing societies.

At Stanford, I really got to dive into experiences internationally, both in the classroom and in the real world. In the classroom, I studied a lot about human rights abuses abroad, how those come to be and global society. Through different internships, I got to do research in six countries, and that really exposed me to different ideas, different ways of thinking and it led me to engage with human rights issues.


TSD: What does earning the Dinkelspiel Award mean to you?

AK: It was definitely very special, but I think that a lot of other seniors definitely deserved this award as well. There are so many incredible people at Stanford who have contributed to the Stanford community in ways that will help future generations of Stanford students. I was very, very thankful to be recognized in that way. I think someone like me winning this award just shows that if you dedicate yourself fully to whatever you’re fighting for, no matter the issue, just fully diving into it, you can make change.


TSD: What are you looking forward to most as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford?

AK: I’m really excited to be in a place where I’m surrounded by people committed to public service, but in different contexts throughout the globe. I’m really excited to sit down and talk human rights, talk politics and talk development with people who’ve been raised under such different belief systems and just look at the world differently than I do. At Stanford, I felt like my political classes were engaging, yes, but mostly American. It’ll be so interesting to engage in dialogue with incredible people who have such strong convictions for public service and doing the right thing, but have different opinions.


TSD: Can you speak a little about your travels and what you’ve done?

AK: The experience that really started it all for me was the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies trip to Guatemala on global public health. When we were there, we were doing interviews with women about birth control practices, as well as running medical clinics, and I was helping translate for some of the doctors from Stanford. I got to witness the program that Dr. Paul Wise has run in San Lucas, Guatemala that has greatly alleviated child malnutrition in the area. It really made me believe in humanitarian programs, and that we need to keep working towards trying to make humanitarian programs more effective.

[Using a research grant in the same summer], I went to Kigali, Rwanda. I was researching crimes against women in times of war within the refugee camps on the border to Burundi. That was very, very impactful for me because it made me realize that the community that I think that I want to advocate for in the future is the refugee community. I was incredibly impacted by those women’s stories of the terrible things that happened to them as a result of their gender during war, and the fact that the international community did nothing during the Rwandan genocide and continues to do nothing during what is seen in Burundi right now. However, I didn’t quite feel like I was being as effective as I could there. I felt like that space was meant to be taken up by someone else, and that I could be more helpful in different ways.

The following summer, I ended up in Hong Kong in a law firm that was helping Burundian refugees seek asylum in Hong Kong. I was working with the same demographic, but from a [legal] angle. I actually felt way more effective, and I felt like I understood what the law firm was doing. I felt that I was getting to engage with the material, and I could really use my skill set in that realm. The Hong Kong experience really helped guide me more towards international law and defining that as my pathway to public service.

[This summer], I’m interning for the Supreme Court. It’s been interesting to say the least. I came straight here from graduation, so I’m still catching up on sleep.


TSD: What do you think are the biggest challenges for people like you who are working in public service and advocating for human rights abuses?

AK: The biggest challenge is staying engaged and not getting discouraged. I think it’s very, very difficult to believe, especially in our current political climate, that good things are going to happen, and that that democracy is going to strengthen instead of being torn down. It’s really, really hard to look at our current political climate, and say, “yes! I’d love to get more involved!” Reminding people that even if we aren’t represented at the top levels right now, that the people who were suffering when we first stepped into public service are still suffering and they still need someone to sit there and advocate for them, even if we aren’t represented at the top. We just need to keep fighting. We can’t give up, because if you give up, then no one’s advocating for vulnerable people, and then what?


TSD: Has there been a particular experience or interaction that led to an epiphany or change in your own worldview?

AK: I wouldn’t say that there was just this, “I met this young girl and she changed my world” moment. It was a general realization in my journey that I, in connection to the idea of being vulnerable in society, have a disability and I’m low-income. I think that enabled me to have a certain level of empathy for people who are vulnerable. That led me to to this path. It’s a culmination of all of the women that I’ve met who deserve someone to be screaming for them. I do have the privilege of being a white woman from the United States with a degree from a prestigious university, so my voice actually has a shot at being heard in the world. With that privilege, I have the responsibility to use it to advocate for people who can’t.


TSD: What do you think is the best piece of advice you’ve received?

AK: I’m not sure how not to be cliche, but I guess to do all the good you can. The quote that comes to mind for me is from Hillary Clinton’s campaign video. It’s something along the lines of “do all the good you can. In all the ways you can. For however long you can. For however many people you can.” At any point, you should be using your skill set to your full ability to help people. To me, that meant if I was going to have the tremendous opportunity to attend Stanford, I should be trying my absolute best to say yes to as many things as I could for the purpose of attaining as many skills as I could, which I could then use to help others in the future.


The full list of the recipients of the Cuthbertson, Dinkelspiel and Gores awards for excellence in teaching and contribution to undergraduate education can be found here.


This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed.


Contact Angie Wang at 19awang ‘at’ castilleja.org.

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