Human rights degree equips students for world ahead, graduate says

IMAGE: CNS photo/Larry Burgess, University of Dayton

By Carol Zimmermann

(CNS) — Dominic Sanfilippo, one of 12 students who graduated with a degree in human rights May 8 at the University
of Dayton in Ohio, said he has grown accustomed to explaining his major to people
over the years.

He’s often been asked: “What
do you plan to do with that?”

Or he has picked up the unspoken question
from “the uncle who says, ‘Oh that’s nice'” when Sanfilippo says what
he’s studying.

He understands the reaction, pointing
out: “Business majors do business and engineering majors do
engineering.” But even if there are not specific human rights jobs
available, he said the degree equips graduates to navigate careers they choose where
they can apply learned skills of critical thinking, compassion and advocacy.

Sanfilippo, who spoke to
Catholic News Service May 3, less than a week before graduation, said when he
was looking at colleges four years ago, Dayton’s human rights program appealed
to him. The new graduate, who is from Chicago, also majored in

The University of Dayton, a Marianist
university, started the nation’s first undergraduate human rights studies
program through the Department of Political Science in 1998 and then 10 years
later it became one of the first universities to offer bachelors’ degrees in
human rights studies. Since then, more than 100 students at Dayton have
graduated with human rights degrees and have pursued careers as human rights advocates
and academics or work in legal, governmental and nonprofit groups.

Other colleges offering human
rights degrees include Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Bard College
and Columbia University in New York, and Trinity College in Connecticut. Other Catholic
colleges with human rights programs include Boston College and Georgetown

The University of San Francisco is
one of the few colleges in the country offering a master’s degree in human
rights and the law schools at several Catholic and private colleges have a
human rights focus including the University of Notre Dame and Fordham

Mark Ensalaco, an associate
professor of political science at the University of Dayton, who helped get the human
rights studies started on campus and was its first director, sees tangible
results from the program, which added a human rights center in 2013 that focuses
on raising awareness about issues such as human trafficking.

The university’s human rights
center has had a “unique mission” from the get-go, Ensalaco said,
pointing out that it was not just going to be another center that provided an
occasional film series, but one truly involved in advocacy work such as its
recent efforts to eradicate slave labor in Brazil for products sold in the U.S.

So when people ask what does one
do with human rights studies, it turns out there are some tangible answers.

And for the next year, Sanfilippo already has plans that more or less coincide with his degree. He expects to spend a
year in a newly launching Marianist service program based in Dayton called
PULSE where he will live in a community, akin to a Catholic Worker House with
other participants doing essentially volunteer work across the city.

Sanfilippo will be spending his
time at Chaminade Julienne Catholic High School in Dayton, a Marianist-run
school, where he plans to mentor students on social justice issues and help with
community outreach.

essentially creating a job for me since it’s the first year of the
program,” he said.

Sanfilippo notes
that he is at a unique time in his life and that during the upcoming year
he will figure out if he will go on to graduate school, political work or
something else.

“I’m excited about it,”
he said, about the service year. He also admits that it took him awhile to get
to this spot because a few years ago he wouldn’t have imagined not looking for
a great job or applying for a fellowship.

Now he says he’s lucky to have
the chance to share his work and faith with others.

“It makes all sense in
world,” he added, noting that the unknown future path after next year
doesn’t overwhelm him.

Then adding something not every
college graduate could, he said: “I’ve become more comfortable with

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