Sunday, July 7, 2019

Semester Two Update

Prior to beginning this post, I must sincerely apologize for the lack of updates shared on my behalf over the past few months. Semester two of my Master’s program was a blur of readings, assignments, and exams and it was here and gone before I could even catch my breath. While it is no excuse for keeping you all in the dark about what I have been up to, the day to day stress and at times monotony of such a jam-packed year at times made me feel like I had nothing new to share, while in reality, that of course was not the case.

Regardless, I am excited to make up for lost time and have put together this post attempting to summarize the major events of my second semester in preparation for future posts detailing what has already been a thrilling summer since the end of courses/exams. 

As the semester began, it was time to choose my electives once again, which is always a difficult time given my persistent struggle to decide on which of my many interests to pursue. In the end, I selected a module on business and human rights and another on international criminal law, both of which were taught by a team of three different professors. While this was at times difficult given the wide array of teaching styles and personalities, receiving three perspectives on the same topic allowed for a much broader and nuanced understanding of the material in my opinion. However, because I am so indecisive, I also audited two additional courses, one on humanitarian law and another on UN peacekeeping missions. This proved to be worth the extra hours of class time each week, as they were great courses.

Early in the semester, I was also given the opportunity to present at a Paul Harris Fellows Luncheon for District 1240. Unbeknownst to me until arrival, this ended up being quite a large event with over 100 (by my estimation) attendees. It was a terrific opportunity to not only meet a number of terrific Rotarians from the District and hear more about the work they are doing within their clubs, but it was a privilege to share my experience as a Global Grant Scholar as a representative of all of those who have benefited from the Rotary Foundation and the contributions of Paul Harris Fellows. As the day progressed, it became clear to me that a major purpose of the event was to demonstrate the importance of the Foundation and the work that it supports, and I hope that I was able to encourage those present that their contributions have been worthwhile. If I didn’t, surely the speaker who followed me, Anne Wafula Strike MBE, may have with her incredible charisma and story of resilience as a UK paralympian and polio survivor.

A few weeks later, I gave a slightly longer presentation at the weekly meeting of my host club in Colchester. They were so welcoming as always, and it was great to finally introduce myself in greater detail to the Rotarians. I enjoyed a number of great conversations with members of the club regarding politics, both international and domestic, and just what it means to be a citizen of the world in a time of what I would characterize as significant crisis. Of course we also enjoyed much lighter conversation, likely regarding what I remember to have been a delicious meal.

Later in the semester, after entering our exam period of frantically writing three 5,000-word essays in one month, I was also able to take an evening off to travel down to London with a group of my classmates to attend the release of an Amnesty International investigation on the coalition bombing campaign in Raqqa, Syria that we had all contributed to as part of our work in the Essex Digital Verification Unit (see previous posts for more on this). It was held in a small gallery space and included three multimedia exhibitions, which merged our work mapping and geolocating airstrikes with reporting their staff had done in the field, collecting stories from the families of victims of the strikes. It was incredibly powerful to see these two components brought together and to meet the individuals who had planned and coordinated such a creative and impactful exhibition. The platform that Amnesty created to share this research is publicly available here and I strongly recommend that you take a look.

However, the novelty of that experience was short lived, as it upon my return from London it was the final week before exams were due. This involved a number of late nights typing away in my living room, regularly getting 5 hours of sleep or fewer, and at one panic at the rapidly approaching deadlines. BUT the work all got done and I was rewarded for my efforts with high marks on all three papers. It was then time to move on to one of the more challenging aspects of the entire year: preparing for the infamous written exam. 

Certainly the most intimidating aspect of the Master’s program, each year, students are tested on one year’s worth of course material covering the core aspects of human rights law. The written exam is three hours long and includes three essay questions. The first is a problem question, asking you to provide legal analysis for a set of facts outlining a hypothetical situation or case. The second two questions are more straightforward essay questions. You are only allowed to bring in the core UN human rights treaties and the General Comments issued by the treaty bodies interpreting their provisions. Still this amounted to a hefty binder-full of papers and more hours spent memorizing and studying than I care to calculate. It was a very intimidating affair but one that I was glad to have gone through. The time spent learning the material was invaluable for truly gaining a deep understanding of human rights law and the shared experience of stressing over dense legalese was quite a binding experience for myself and the few classmates who became my study companions. 

And I even managed to squeeze in a trip to Portugal with my family in between (although when I wasn’t at the beach, I was buried in textbooks). They had never been to Europe before, so me being in the UK, they took the opportunity to tour England, Spain and Portugal. While I unfortunately could not join for the entire trip, I met them in Lisbon, Portugal and drove with the to the south west coast of the country to Sintra and Praia das Macas. It was wonderful time and we ate our weight in fish and other delicious treats.

That pretty much covers the past semester. After the exam, I had about a week to recollect myself, relax, and prepare for an adventure that I will cover in my next post: a 3-day conference in Hong Kong hosted by Amnesty International and two weeks of personal travel in South Korea in Japan!

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Trip to the Lakes

 After the hustle and bustle of the holidays and completing my exams for the first term of classes, I am finally settling back into the normal routine of student life. I am now two weeks into second term, and I will soon be providing an update on what I have in store for the final few months of my time in Essex. However, first I must make good on a promise that I made in my last post to share with you all my fantastic holiday in the Lake District that I went on with my partner Grace, who was visiting from Minnesota.

The Lake District is located in northwestern England and its a popular travel location for many because of its lakes, mountains (fells), and hiking trails. It was also a favorite travel spot for the the likes of William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter! While it may not compete with Minnesota and Wisconsin for quantity of lakes, it certainly can hold its own in terms of beauty. There are enough trails to last an avid hiker a lifetime and each comes with its own distinct geographic features and staggering views. Rather than write extensively about it, I am instead going to let the photos mostly speak for themselves.

 After renting a car in Ipswich (a mint green Fiat!), we drove 5.5 hours to Keswick, one of the more populous towns in the Lake District and centrally located. As we still had an hour or two of daylight when we arrived, we made our way first to the prehistoric Castlerigg stone circle which is dated between 3000 and 2500 BC.
Castlerigg Stone Circle near Keswick, Cumbria
We then made our way to the our lodging on the Greta Bank Farm outside of Keswick. After dropping off our things, we quickly made our way to the nearby Pheasant Inn for a pint in front of a roaring fireplace, perfect for a crisp winter evening in the mountains.
Greta Bank Farm in Keswick
The next day we had perfect weather for a day hike on the Catsbells Ridge overlooking Deerwentwater Lake. The pristine water and vibrant green hills made for incredible scenery and many photo-worthy moments. Below are a few of my favorites.

We capped off the day with dinner and drink at the Dog and Gun pub in Keswick, a packed local spot that seemed to be a favorite among dog owners (at one point I swear there were more dogs than people inside!). Those around us were very friendly and we chatted for hours. Everyone was eager to hear about our lives in the US and to figure out how two Americans ended up in the Lake District in the winter. We also benefited from their local tips and anecdotes about the area.

Our second day, we planned a slightly more vertical hike up to a high mountain lake near Easedale Tarn. By comparison to the previous day, we did not see the sun at all, however, it was still a terrific hike.

When it was time to return to Wivenhoe the next day, we still had not gotten our fill of beautiful Lake District scenery, so we took the scenic route back through the Buttermere Valley and stopped for a quick walk around Buttermere Lake.

It was a fantastic weekend away and exceeded all of my expectations! It is unlikely that I would have ever made my way to the Lake District without living here and am grateful for the opportunity to experience more of what the UK has to offer besides the main attractions. If you ever have the chance to visit the lakes, it is a must see!

Monday, December 10, 2018

End of Term Update!

Today marks the beginning of the last week of classes for this term! Afterwords, I will have one month to write my final essays (and maybe celebrate the holidays if I can find some time...) and the next term will kick off in January. It oddly feels like the time has passed far too quickly but also that it has taken a lot out of me. The past few months have been so full of new knowledge, experiences, and people that it is difficult to come to terms with how much has happened since I arrived in Colchester back in September. I am looking forward to a break from it all, despite my looming assignments, and the opportunity to regain some energy before the start of my second and final term.

My course has been going quite well on the whole. I am still very much enjoying the material we are studying, which varies significantly from week to week given the structure of our core module. Each week we learn from a different professor about an area of human rights law that is their expertise. They teach us the theory and legal foundations of a particular right, but then they also draw on their practical experience in the field to illuminate the challenges of translating a particular area of law into something with useful application in the world. I am very pleased with my decision to undertake a master's degree in law, as it really complements my liberal arts education from my undergraduate studies. The law provides a different form of logic and analysis, but the critical thinking aspect and interdisciplinary nature of my undergraduate degree allow me to approach this course in a distinct way compared to my colleagues from a law background. While I do not have the same experiences as a litigator or practicing attorney that some of them do, what I can bring to the discussion is proving to be a valuable counterbalance.

Outside of weekly classes, I am managing to keep myself plenty busy and often find myself wondering where the day has gone (particularly given that the sun goes down by 4 pm!!!). I am continuing to work on open source investigations through the Essex Digital Verification Unit (DVU) and Amnesty International, and have begun work on a very interesting side project with a few other colleagues through the Unit. The work perfectly blends my interests in armed conflict, technology, and human rights and will only continue to grow in importance as more and more people learn these skills. I realize that it may not be clear to the reader what open source investigations are, so rather than explain it myself, I am just going to recommend you watch this video about the Essex DVU:

DVU team at work (from the video linked above)

Additionally, I have been working on the Human Rights Centre blog and am getting ready to launch the first episode of our new podcast next week. The podcast will largely be a platform for publishing presentations and interviews with human rights practitioners and academics who we invite to give guest lectures as part of the Human Rights Centre Speaker Series. Each week, all students are invited to hear a presentation on a particular topic within the field from someone engaged in current research or practice. It is both a very informative event, but also one that is great for networking and for getting a sense of what sorts of careers and positions are out there. In my next post, I will be sure to include a link to the podcast so you can see what I have been working on!

Having had a chance to settle into my classes and life in Colchester/Wivenhoe, I have recently been able to engage more with Rotary both here in Colchester and around the area. A few months ago, I attended the international students reception hosted by the Rotary Club of Colchester at the historic Town Hall, where I was introduced to many Rotarians and had a terrific time getting the know them. Afterwords, I received a number of invitations to speak at various clubs and attend upcoming events. Tomorrow, I will be attending the Colchester Club's Christmas Lunch and I will be presenting to the Club on January 8th.

International Students Reception hosted by the Rotary Club of Colchester (can you spot me in the photo!?)

While in some ways, it would be accurate to summarize my first term by the ridiculous number of pages that I have read and the number of times I have walked between the lecture hall and the library, this is not the whole story. The beautiful thing about my time in Essex so far is how much I have been able to take part in over such a short period of time. I am really making an effort to get everything out of this experience that I possibly can, and while sometimes that can be exhausting, it has been so rewarding so far, both in the experiences that I have had and the connections that I have made.

Be sure to check back later this week for another post, this time dedicated to my recent road trip to the Lake District! It will be worth it, even if just for the photos. They are stunning.