Unique online program bridges social justice and human rights

February 28, 2023 · 5 min read · By ASU Online
Hear from students about their experiences in ASU Online’s Master of Arts in social justice and human rights program; a program that examines the relationship between the two and prepares you for a range of career paths.

According to international norms and laws, human rights are inherent to all human beings regardless of factors such as age, faith, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality or other categories.

Social justice is about respecting, protecting and promoting access, resources and opportunities to realize those human rights. Social justice is needed when human rights are violated.

The relationship between social justice and human rights, and the gap that currently exists between theory and practice, are what led to the development of the Master of Arts in social justice and human rights program at ASU Online.


You can be the change you want to see in the world

Offered through the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, students in the program engage with a broad range of 21st-century issues, such as refugee resettlement, immigration and citizenship, human trafficking, racialized violence, international human rights law and more, and learn the necessary skills to tackle those issues in meaningful ways.

For master’s student Gabrielle Sheets, the program was an ideal fit, and not just because it was available online during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Social justice and human rights had so many captivating course requirements that I couldn’t think about enrolling in any other program,” Sheets said. “It felt like the perfect fit for me to continue my education while also upholding my full-time job. This program was tailored to my personal interests and flexibility. It was a no-brainer.”


Learn from a diverse and experienced faculty

Dr. Tricia Redeker-Hepner, associate professor for the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences and director of the Social Justice and Human Rights master’s program, is one such faculty expert. She is a political and legal anthropologist whose expertise includes African studies, activism and social movements, refugee studies and transnational migration.

According to Redeker-Hepner, explicitly addressing the gap between theory and practice is a key component of the program; the theory that everyone has human rights and the reality where sometimes the most basic access to human rights is denied or actively violated.

To do this, students and faculty are challenged to delve into topics with applied techniques, stepping beyond a purely academic approach.

“Our program helps students learn how to apply social scientific perspectives, research and imagination to better understand and engage with real-world problems,” Redeker-Hepner said. “We are simultaneously an academic program and an applied one.”

Graduate student Samuel Aguilera previously worked as an LGBT victim advocate in the domestic violence field. He joined the program to support his current research on queer migration.

Since joining the program, he said the support and resources he encountered have been “nothing short of positive and inspirational.”

“I believe my efforts are needed to advocate for Latinx transgender asylum seekers held in detention centers,” Aguilera said. “I am now working on my final project for the Migration, Asylum, and Refugees course, and Dr. Malay Firoz has provided me with valuable guidance and experience in creating solid and meaningful research that I hope to pursue as a PhD candidate.”


How can artists address social justice and human rights subjects in their work?

That was the question freelance musician and theater artist Janice Mautner Markham asked herself when deciding whether to join the master’s program. It was important that her studies connected these seemingly disparate fields.

“It’s a pretty lofty goal. When I found the program at ASU and spoke to advisors, they felt confident that I could incorporate the cross-section of the arts and social justice in my work,” she said.

This interdisciplinary approach is intentional and encouraged.

Students feel empowered to become advocates for change within the social justice and human rights program because the coursework is designed to exist at the intersection of policy and activism.

Redeker-Hepner says this tenet is inspired by the late medical doctor, anthropologist and human rights advocate Dr. Paul Farmer who said it isn’t enough to study the causes and consequences of social problems in the abstract; you have to do something about it.

Some students come to the program with lived experiences as human trafficking survivors, refugees, wartime soldiers or peacebuilders. Rallying around common goals, or simply the desire to make the world a better place, creates a close-knit community of peers, faculty and allyship in the program, a support network that is carefully cultivated.

“We aim to help each person nurture the convictions that motivate them and connect them with achievable academic and professional goals,” Redeker-Hepner said.

Applying social science can be a powerful tool that allows a person to see their own and others’ experiences in new ways, question what they thought they knew, and grow and transform intellectually and personally.

Sheets experienced this process firsthand. She found learning about her peers’ research and advocacy nearly as fascinating as the coursework. She also believes the program has prompted her to view social justice issues in new ways.

“What has surprised me the most in this program is that I learned there are many important issues in social justice that I didn’t even know about,” she said. “Every course, I learn about something new in the world and about something new in the field of social justice. I am continuously amazed at the things people in this program are doing, have done, or are working to accomplish.”


Prepare for jobs in the fields of social justice and human rights

Career opportunities in the social justice and human rights field are on the rise. For example, social and community service job openings are projected to grow by 12% from 2021-2031, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). And the median annual salary for these roles was $74,000 in 2021.

Redeker-Hepner has seen this growth first-hand. Graduates of the program often pursue careers as humanitarian aid workers, human rights lawyers, investigative journalists, lobbyists, nonprofit agency managers, public policy researchers and much more.

“Our students go on to do incredible work after graduation,” Redeker-Hepner said. “They get law degrees and doctoral degrees. They work for the United Nations or major international or national non-governmental organizations. They found their own organizations.”

Sheets, for her part, is excited to continue her advocacy journey in law school.

“My passion involves advocating for women and the LGBTQIA+ community,” Sheets said. “After earning my degree in this field, I will be attending law school with the hopes of becoming an attorney working to aid women and LGBTQIA+ individuals who experience some form of violence.”

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This article was written by Margot LaNoue for ASU Online.

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