Read below about Andrew Oravecz’s experience moving from a Human Rights and Political Science major at UConn, to the Executive Assistant to the President at Freedom House.
“Fully fixated on studying for finals last May, I received a call while outlining economics course material in the Homer Babbidge Library. Scurrying outside to avert the glare of caffeine-filled, anxious students, the president of Freedom House offered me my first job as his executive assistant. After working with this human rights and democracy organization for the last six months, I’ve come to put the pieces together as to how this all transpired.
The Human Rights Institute (HRI) clearly played an integral role in facilitating this professional relationship. During the Summer of 2014, I was fortunate enough to be selected for HRI’s fully-funded internship with Freedom House, providing me with valuable experiences and connections within their external relations division based in Washington D.C. Quite simply, UConn opened a door that inevitably would have been locked without their help. I am entirely grateful for their assistance.
Above is the answer one might gather from reviewing my resume, but the Human Rights Institute had a much more profound impact beyond one of financier. “Do what you love” always seemed like mediocre advice to me; of course that should be the case. What most fail to acknowledge – myself included – was that further developing a personal value system served as the bridge needed to identify where my passions resided. I accomplished this in my studies at UConn.
One of the greatest lessons HRI taught me was the dire importance of being a reliable ally to marginalized populations. Just a few weeks ago, former President Bill Clinton concluded his keynote address by pointing out that, “You all have the power to be soldiers for human rights.” From experience, if I were to have been listening to this speech as an undergraduate, I would have left Jorgensen thinking about power potential, implying that my role as a soldier was likely far on the horizon after years of professional development. Less than a year into my career, I know that such a result is much closer than I originally thought.
What is an executive assistant anyway, and how could that role possibly allow me to be a “soldier” for human rights? Good question; when taking this position, I had limited insight as to how I’d be spending 40 hours per week. There are surely logistical tasks such as planning a workday in 15 minute increments, preparing briefing books, tracking finances, and bridging the executive office to staff- admittedly not glamorous or flashy. You act as a cog to keep the machine rolling. However, two instances in particular have made me step back and realize my role as a soldier for human rights.
Both projects relate to the value of being an effective, supportive ally. HRI taught me why there was a need for this role (domestically and abroad), sensitivity to pursue strategic change, and critical thinking skills which forced me to challenge my own preconceived views. Opening the door to Freedom House was one step, but truly building my capacity to engage in this line of work was HRI’s real gift- one which will far outlast my tenure at this organization.
The first project came in the form of an institutional special initiative. Freedom House is currently celebrating its 75th anniversary, and we have organized a number of events to commemorate this milestone. To kick off our celebration, we assembled a panel of activists that embody our mission of furthering fundamental freedoms, promoting civil and political rights, and defending human rights. Freedom House hosted prominent Hong Kong democracy activists Martin Lee, Benny Tai, and Joshua Wong (yes, internationally renowned 18-year-old organizer and focal point of the Umbrella Movement which assembled over 200,000 peaceful protesters in the streets of Hong Kong during fall of 2014). My supporting role in their advocacy campaign was one of the most rewarding experiences to date. At its core, I was helping to empower their movement by making sure that their time was utilized effectively throughout their stay. One of many news stories on the visit can be found here.
More recently, I took initiative to write for the organization’s Freedom at Issue Blog. Something not well-known about Freedom House is that it was highly involved with the U.S. civil rights movement. Roy Wilkins, former director of the NAACP, and Bayard Rustin, a leading adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., both held leadership roles within the organization. However, Freedom House is now most recognized for their flagship publications and programmatic work abroad. Consistent with our organizational heritage and capitalizing on my experience in White Racism and History of Human Rights taken through the HR program, I published Calling for Progress: Racial Inequality and Criminal Justice Reform. Writing about these issues in courses, honing my understanding, and advocating for rightful legislative change symbolizes the process needed to contribute as a soldier for human rights. To undergraduates reading, utilize your coursework to explore your passions and identify what you want to be doing; titles and positions will change with time, but you will carry certain principles and values forever.
My personal testament towards the value of UConn’s Human Rights Institute may not be terribly telling for those reading, but there are many others with similar stories. Students – close friends of mine who also graduated in May – have gone on to enroll in notable Ph.D and Law programs, or work at places like the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and the White House. Before we knew it, the time came for us to concretely contribute to furthering the causes we all became imbued with at the Institute. Thanks to the guidance and experiences fostered there, we were ready.”