University’s first human rights minor reflects on experiences as a student

Nov. 15, 2018, 5:24 a.m.

Alina Utrata ‘17, the first Stanford graduate with a minor in human rights, visited the Handa Center on Tuesday to share her experiences at Stanford and as a master’s student in the U.K.

“The Handa Center was one of the most important – if not the most important – parts of my undergraduate experience,” Utrata said.

The Center was established in 2014 and launched its human rights minor in autumn 2016, at the beginning of Utrata’s senior year.

According to its website, the Center — part of the Global Studies Division of the School of Humanities and Sciences — seeks to “equip a new generation of leaders to protect and promote human rights and dignity for all, in the classroom and in the world.”

As a 2017 Marshall Scholar, Utrata received funding to pursue a master’s degree in conflict transformation and social justice at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland. She will graduate next month.

“One of the things I’ve been reflecting on a lot, having gone to Stanford and grown up in the Silicon Valley, is the emphasis on individualism that we have here,” Utrata said. “Living in Ireland has really pushed me and my prejudices and the way I think about things.”

She added that, upon matriculating to Stanford, she felt the pressure to contribute to society in a meaningful way.

“I personally need to do something that’s going to impact somebody or some larger system,” she said.

Although Utrata’s passion for international relations began in high school, she told The Daily that two courses she took as a frosh — THINK 19: Rules of War, taught by professors Scott Sagan and Allen Weiner, and HISTORY 4N: A World History of Genocide, taught by professor Norman Naimark — sparked her interest in international justice. Naimark would later become Utrata’s advisor for her honors thesis on the International Criminal Tribunal on the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and its impact on Bosnia.

“Sometimes there’s just a question in your mind that irritates you,” Utrata said of her self-claimed “obsession” with the ICTY.

“What does it look like the day after you sign a peace agreement?” Utrata recalled asking herself. “How do you piece communities back together that have experienced these horrible, horrible periods of violence? Can you ever really do that? What does that look like? How does it start?”

In the summer after her sophomore year, Utrata traveled to Bosnia to research the impacts of the ICTY.

“I did a lot of academic work on Bosnia, but I had a sneaking suspicion that it was going to be different when I got there,” she said. “Especially because I was looking at international justice … from the top down.”

Utrata described her time visiting the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo as “an incredible and terrifying experience.”

“Sarajevo is a place where you can definitely still feel the war and the legacy of the war,” she said. “You get out of the taxi immediately, and you can see there are vestiges of bullet holes in the buildings. It’s still really angry and tense, and I was 19.”

Utrata also talked about her difficulty adjusting to the change in pace of life in Bosnia.

“It’s a different type of learning experience to be able to recognize the differences in culture, to be able to adapt yourself to that culture,” she said.

Several attendees of Tuesday’s event, including Pranavi Kethanaboyina ‘22, said they were interested in Utrata’s experience conducting research abroad.

“I’m very interested in the human rights minor and in learning from recent alumni who have done impactful work already,” Kethanaboyina said. “I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways I can get involved in public service in a way that is long-term ethical, sustainable, impactful and important.”

Kethanaboyina asked Utrata how she approached interviewing people thoughtfully during her research. In response, Utrata acknowledged that interviews can sometimes be emotionally painful for interviewees.

“We’ve underestimated, in terms of research, the impact that interviewing people has,” Utrata said. “But actually, interviewing people can be re-traumatizing.”

Utrata also spoke about the fight for international justice and human rights as a community and worldwide effort.

“For me the postgraduate journey has been letting go of ‘Okay, I’m not going to be able to solve anything, everything,’” she said.

Despite the difficulties Utrata has encountered over the course of her work, she stressed the importance of wanting to make a positive impact.

“The older I get, the more I feel that each of those individual, tiny acts of kindness – that I felt were really insignificant at the time – were actually the building blocks of all the kindness in the world,” Utrata said.


Contact Regina Kong at reginak ‘at’

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