This interview was conducted over email with Kristina Smith, a senior undergraduate student enrolled in the Human Rights Certificate Program, majoring in Public Policy and with a minor in Education, by Miranda Gershoni, a first-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute.  

Miranda Gershoni (MG): Why did you decide to pursue the human rights certificate?

Kristina Smith (KS): When I took the gateway course in the fall of my first year, I was really only looking for a class that would introduce me to the Public Policy major. What I found was a course that taught me about the importance of human beings. While the gateway course, Introduction to Human Rights, exposes the class to a variety of human rights issues and history, I was struck by how each issue that we looked at placed the human experience first. What I found to be true of the class, and later of the certificate, was that the world is a more just place when policies and programs actually consider the lived experiences of people. In the spring of my first year, I realized that I wanted to devote my academic experience to studying how best to put people, especially marginalized people, at the forefront of policy.

MG: What makes this certificate unique from other programs at Duke?

KS: The umbrella of “human rights” is expansive, yet this certificate allows students the opportunity to tailor their experience to the topics that interest them the most. For instance, I have been able to focus on the human rights experiences of people of color throughout my certificate courses. While I do not know if this is unique to the Human Rights Certificate, it is something that I have found deeply important.

MG: How has the multidisciplinary, experiential nature of the program affected your learning while in the certificate?

KS: Too often learning is left inside the classroom. The Human Rights Certificate encourages students to take what they’ve learned inside the classroom and use this knowledge to better understand the world around them. Through the certificate, I have taken classes in the Cultural Anthropology, Public Policy, History, and Program in Education departments. I am more equipped to form connections and make assertions thanks to the breadth of classes I have been lucky enough to take. The principles, theories, and facts I have learned in these classes have strengthened my experiences tutoring in Durham, participating in DukeEngage Cape Town, and growing as a student at this university.

MG: How do you plan to use the information and experiences you’re gaining from the certificate?

KS: My experience in this certificate program has affirmed and strengthened my dedication towards putting people first. After graduation, I plan on pursuing a course to become a juvenile public defender because the system of mass incarceration in our country is deeply affecting youth. Yet, this work can only be done right if it takes into account the status of education, racism, economics, power, and justice, which are all concepts I have had the opportunity to explore because of the Human Rights Certificate.

MG: What has been the most impactful moment (lecture, activity, reading, professor, etc) you’ve gained from the program?

KS: I deeply enjoyed my time in Race, Genomics, and Society taught by Professor Charmaine Royal. For the first time, my thoughts, opinions, and arguments about race as a social construct were not just rooted in history. Instead, due to this class, the foundations of my arguments became rooted in history and biology, which has proven that there is no biological truth to race or racial differences.