Standing for Human Rights
3 World Travelers Share What They’ve Learned About the Power of Empathy
Three students turned a university lesson in human rights into a commitment to see the world and counter the injustices they find. Follow their journey across four years and five continents.
It’s been three years, but Megan Aust ’16 still remembers the sound of her flip-flops sinking into the mud as she made her way into Korail, the biggest slum in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Saturated and sticky from a heavy rain the night before, the narrow road was impassable for the bus carrying her and 16 other students. So they got out and walked the last quarter mile, Aust slipping deeper with each step. And with each pull of her foot, the mud flew off her flip-flops and onto her shins. Squish, smack. Squish, smack.
Although her legs were soon coated, there was nothing to do but keep going. The group eventually reached the edge of the slum and had stopped to talk to their guide when a woman came out of a nearby shack pieced together from tin. She approached Aust, a blue plastic pitcher in one hand and a towel in the other, and began cleaning the mud off Aust’s legs.
Aust did the only thing she could think of: She said thank you. In that moment, she says, a fundamental human truth came to life for her. “No matter how much or how little we have, we are all capable of kindness and empathy,” she says. “We all want to better our condition, and there’s so much we can do for each other.”
The 17 students traveled to Bangladesh in August 2014 as part of the university’s first trip associated with a Freshman Studies common theme — that year, human rights. All 791 freshmen spent the fall semester studying the theme, and the trip was a chance for students to see how concepts from the classroom translated in a developing country with millions of citizens living in poverty.
Over the course of the week, Aust saw the themes of collaboration and kindness emerge again and again: Women in a village joining together to talk openly about domestic abuse. A group of midwives working to decrease infant and maternal mortality. A town hall meeting on improving sanitation. Recovering drug addicts counseling child addicts.
“Experiencing the beauty and flaws of other cultures — their vision for what their communities want and need and how they make it happen — has given me the courage to do things I never thought possible,” says Aust, now a senior applying to PhD programs in Sociology. “Seeing their fearlessness has made me more fearless.”
For Aust and fellow seniors Andrea Ojeda ’17 and Alex Robertson ’17, the human rights theme has carried across their chosen disciplines and across the world. And the empathy they’ve developed for other communities and conditions comes down to one basic idea, says Aust. “You can study how people live and have opinions about their culture and how they should solve their problems. But until you share in someone’s experience firsthand, you can never truly know it.”
Aust found herself seeking such knowledge again last summer as she walked out of the Jane Station metro stop in Toronto, Canada, and stared at Google Maps on her phone. She rolled her shoulders to shift the weight of her St. Edward’s cheerleading backpack and headed east, peering at blue street signs and consulting her phone to make sure the names matched.
She stopped in front of a heavy glass door tucked between a hair salon and a weight loss center and headed up the stairs to the office of the Canadian Ukrainian Immigrant Aid Society. Aust had no idea who would be there or what she would say, but she knew what she wanted to accomplish — a series of interviews with immigrants to find out how Russia’s invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula had changed their lives, particularly in terms of gender roles.
Half Ukrainian, a quarter Mexican and raised in Los Angeles, Aust knew much about her family’s Mexican heritage and traditions. But she knew less about her Ukrainian side. When a History and Global Processes class piqued her interest, she crafted a research project that would take her to the country with the largest population of Ukrainians outside Ukraine and Russia. Undaunted when her emails to several immigrant-focused aid organizations went unanswered, she flew to Toronto anyway, ready to make the researcher’s equivalent of a cold call.
And this was it. She approached two women huddled around a stack of papers and a laptop. She made her pitch. And the women started talking, momentarily putting aside the case files they had been discussing and telling Aust their own stories. Soon, the administrative assistant pulled up a chair and joined them.
Two hours later, Aust headed back to Jane Station, her phone’s voice recorder full of the women’s comments on the conflict, must-read book titles and names of people to talk with next. Over the next 12 days, she interviewed 10 people, including an accountant who trains therapy dogs for Ukrainian soldiers and a librarian at the St. Vladimir Institute, a residence and cultural center for Ukrainian immigrants.
What she learned is that women lead a majority of Toronto’s Ukrainian support groups. They have learned that they can’t trust leaders back home to honestly appropriate the funds they collect, so they send supplies instead. Along with this near-constant work, many women must take low-wage jobs to support their families because their Ukrainian academic and professional credentials don’t translate in Toronto workplaces. The women must also learn English, and many enroll at Canadian universities to earn (or re-earn) degrees. All of these changes, primarily the result of the men fighting on the front in Ukraine, have challenged traditional gender roles and family structures.
“The women I talked with have led a movement in Toronto to bring awareness about the conflict, but they’re also immigrants struggling with their own assimilation,” she says. “They may be far away from their home, but it’s still close in their hearts. They want to be able to influence what happens there.”
Now, the Sociology major is turning her interviews into a research paper to submit with her PhD applications and present at the Pacific Sociological Association this spring. She is working on a senior thesis about the international response to the war in Ukraine for her Capstone class — a section focused on human rights that includes five others from the 2014 Bangladesh trip. Aust has also applied for a Fulbright Study/Research Award so she can continue her project at the University of Toronto.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from her experiences in Bangladesh and Canada is “how much you can’t learn in a classroom,” says Aust. “A classroom can prepare you to have an open mind. But getting out in the world, seeing what’s happening and figuring out what part you can play in the solutions — that’s up to you.”
Like Aust, Andrea Ojeda ’17 understands that the most effective way to change her perspective is to change her geography. After Bangladesh, she headed to Canto Grande, part of Peru's most populous district, as part of a two-week International Immersion through Campus Ministry. The brightly painted houses — pink, peach, purple — dotting the mountainside contrasted with parts of the district up in the mountains with little or no running water or electricity.
As she volunteered in two schools and ran an after-school program for kids in Canto Grande, Ojeda began to look beyond the obvious infrastructure needs to the emotional needs of the children she met. Besides helping the kids cut and glue construction-paper houses and practice English vocabulary words — roof, door, window, garden — Ojeda became the de facto disciplinarian for a group of rowdy boys as one of only two fluent Spanish speakers in the group of St. Edward’s volunteers.
She taught them to make pipe-cleaner flowers. She helped them braid plastic string into friendship bracelets. She quizzed them on their multiplication tables. A black-haired, bright-eyed 8-year-old boy kept getting the answers right, even as she moved from the easy threes and fives to the harder eights, nines and twelves. Even though she had trouble reconciling his crazy behavior with his obvious intelligence, she recognized that he was acting out because he was bored.
He reminded her of her father, today a successful bodega owner, who quit school in third grade, moved to the United States from Mexico when he was 13 and ran away from home shortly thereafter. “I saw in this little boy what my dad’s childhood must have been like,” she says, “and I wondered how my dad’s life might have been different if someone had taken the time to tell him he was smart and that they believed in him. I felt like I needed to deliver that message.”
She did just that on the last day, as she handed the boy a picture of their group. He smiled — an acknowledgment, she hoped — and he galloped off to play.
Ojeda hasn’t seen the boy since, but she’s seen plenty of kids just like him. After the Peru immersion, the Political Science major began shadowing an Austin ISD bilingual education teacher, volunteering as a reading and writing aide, and working as a substitute teacher. “In nearly every classroom, I see the same pattern — smart kids whose needs are overlooked by a system that lacks the resources to serve them effectively. I always want to say to those kids, ‘Do your best; please do your best. You’re really smart and ambitious, but other people won’t recognize your strengths if you don’t show them.”
So Ojeda is working to change the system that’s ill equipped to help them. She studied education policy through a yearlong Austin Chamber of Commerce internship and spent last summer interning with the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics through the U.S. Department of Education. This semester, she is working at the Texas Capitol as a legislative aide and Mexican American Legislative Caucus fellow. And she hopes to be back in South America after graduation on a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship to Brazil.
“When I say out loud that I’m committed to a more just world, I think of the people I’ve met in Bangladesh and Peru and D.C. and Austin. They make my words real,” says Ojeda. “There are lots of problems we can work together to solve by channeling our energy into action — and change can start with something as small as a conversation.”
After Bangladesh, Alex Robertson ’17 headed to Turkey funded by a U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship. Even with the intense language immersion — nine hours of class every weekday for two months at Ankara University TÖMER, plus hours of homework and meetings with a native speaker — she still needed to consult her English-Turkish translation app for more complex conversations.
The kinds of discussions Robertson was having — about the emotional openness of the Turkish people contrasted with the government’s emphasis on cultural assimilation — required concepts and words well beyond conversational basics.
“Turkey is the quickest place I ever made a friend. It’s a very social, welcoming culture and they have no qualms about asking anything,” says Robertson. “You get very close very fast.”
So when she found herself sitting down at the beige Formica table to eat with her host father, Yaşar, she brought up the Syrian refugees she had seen in Ankara. When Robertson was there in the summer of 2015, Syrians fleeing the civil war in their home country were flooding into Turkey and were met with a dearth of social services. “I recognized the same tensions I’ve seen in the United States, the conflict between people who have already put down roots and those who would like to but aren’t given the opportunity to belong,” she says.
As she struggled to find the Turkish words to ask her questions, she and Yaşar pushed aside the bread and cheese tray, then the boiled eggs, then the olives. They passed the yellow pocket dictionary back and forth, back and forth. Immigrant. Göçmen. Policy. Siyaset. Compassion. Şefkat.
“It was painstaking for me,” she remembers, “as we unraveled each other’s sentences. Most of the time he was jovial, but he wasn’t lighthearted about this. Both he and my host mother thought there wasn’t enough being done to help the immigrants by any governments.”
As the crisis in Syria continued to spread across borders, Robertson’s two-month program ended and she left Turkey to spend the fall semester at the University of Limerick in Ireland. By day, the English Writing and Rhetoric major studied literary modernism in a cavernous auditorium with a hundred other students. Outside the lecture hall, she turned again to conversation as a means to decipher the culture.
One of the people she interviewed was a graduate student researching sobriety in Ireland. In the course of that conversation, the woman told her, “‘No one is going to trust you unless you have a pint with them,’ and I quickly realized what a social lubricant alcohol was there. As my taxi driver said, ‘There’s not much to do but drink.’” Rather than partake, Robertson tried to understand how alcohol might be a coping mechanism for the high poverty and crime rates that, in the 1990s, earned Limerick the nickname “Stab City.” She talked with neighbors over dinner and trivia games. She discovered Limerick Suicide Watch, a group of volunteers who patrol the River Shannon looking for jumpers.
Her conclusion? “There are pressing problems everywhere — Bangladesh, Turkey, Ireland, Austin — but with the right infrastructure, both physical and social, people in a community can find their own solutions,” she says. “It starts with empathy. What would you do if the shoe were on the other foot?”
Now, Robertson is looking for her next international conversation. She’s waiting to hear if she received a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship to South Africa — “I wanted something culturally different from what I’ve been able to experience so far.” No matter where she lands and what she learns, she knows the truth she wants to commit her life and career to: “We all have a responsibility to help others live as good of a life as human dignity demands.”
By Stacia Hernstrom