For the students in Scholars and Journalists at Risk class, their coursework went outside of their classroom in Chattanooga.
Researching the Iranian justice system, calling U.S. senators and organizing a postcard campaign were just few of the tasks the students completed to bring awareness and advocate for the rights of two scholars imprisoned in Iran.
The class, taught by Dr. Jessica Auchter, a UT Foundation professor of political science and public service, partnered with Scholars at Risk, an international network of higher education institutions and individuals working to protect scholars and promote academic freedom.
The scholars are suffering grave threats to their lives, liberty and well-being, and Scholars at Risk arrange temporary research and teaching positions as well as by providing advisory and referral services.
For some of the students, the class provided a different perspective than their other college courses.
“In any another class, you feel like you’re in your major because you want to better the world, but you’re not really there yet. You’re just doing whatever is required of you to get the grade you want. If you blow off a reading assignment, it’s only going to hurt yourself,” Kate Mobley said. “It was really different for this class because that wasn’t really an option. We weren’t just trying to help ourselves; we were trying to help someone else have a better situation and not face a horrible, bleak future.”
The students chose to focus on the cases of Hamid Babaei and Dr. Ahmadreza Djalali. Babaei, a doctoral student at University of Liege in Belgium, was imprisoned in 2013 for “contact with enemy states” after a 10-minute trial. Djalali, a physician who specializes in disaster medicine, was arrested in 2016 while attending an academic conference in Iran. A few weeks ago, he was sentenced to death on espionage charges.
Ashley DeGennaro said reading about the verdict in Djalali’s case “really hit home” for students in the class.
“It put a real fire under us and continue what we’re doing and continue this work after the semester as well. It makes you realize that you have a responsibility to speak out for this person who’s not able to have their own voice in their own situation.
“Justice does not win in every situation.”
For Auchter, the news about Djalali illustrated the often-tough reality that goes into advocacy work.
“You don’t know what to expect, things can change rapidly, and sometimes you have to shift your responses based on evolving events,” she said. “Most of the time, the work that you do, you don’t know the effects of it for quite some time, and perhaps not at all. So small steps and small pieces of progress are the most effective things that we can contribute,” she said.
To help raise awareness for their chosen scholars, the students created an informational video, planned a social media campaign, wrote postcards to the scholars and their families and called the offices of more than 30 U.S. senators.
For Meshia Seay, the class changed how she views her future career.
“Through this class, I’ve realized that freedom of expression is an extreme privilege. It motivated me to do the work and give it all I could because I was advocating for someone who didn’t have the same privileges as me,” she said.
“Doing advocacy work isn’t my field of study, but now I’m thinking about how can I implement this type of work in what I want to do. This class made me realize this is something I want to do and something that I’m passionate about.”