This interview was conducted over email with Zac Johnson, a student enrolled in the Human Rights Certificate Program, by Catherine Howard, a fourth-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute. In addition to the Human Rights Certificate, Zac is earning majors in Public Policy and History.

Catherine Howard (CH): Why did you decide to pursue the Human Rights Certificate?

Zac Johnson (ZJ): I decided to pursue the Human Rights Certificate because I wanted to challenge my own beliefs. This came after I joined the work-study team at DHRC while also participating in Duke Immerse: Rights and Identities in the Americas my second year. I was immediately struck by the environment of the Human Rights Center, its courses, its staff/faculty members, and all their ability to change my assumptions about the world.

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

ZJ: One of the most significant aspects of the Human Rights Certificate is the elective courses it offers. From studying mass incarceration to transnational feminism, the Human Rights Certificate offers students a wide variety of radical and transformative classes that can easily complement other majors. I found the Human Rights Certificate to be a perfect addition to my other two majors, allowing me to more critically engage with the implications to human rights of history and public policy. I am super excited to begin working on the senior capstone project, Mapping NC Human Rights History, as an amazing combination of all my interests and academic passions.

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

ZJ: The benefits of the experiential nature of the program cannot be understated. As a participant in Duke Immerse, I was one of the few members of my class at Duke who was able to travel abroad before the pandemic began. Duke Immerse: Rights and Identities in the Americas brought me and my peers to Mexico to work with a grassroots organization, Otros Dreams en Acción, “an organization dedicated to mutual support and political action for and by those who grew up in the United States and now find themselves in Mexico due to deportation, the deportation of a family member, or the threat of deportation.” Working with ODA allowed me to understand the American immigration system from a perspective quite literally absent in the country, an experience I may never have again.

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

ZJ: The Human Rights Certificate has fundamentally shifted my outlook on the world, shaping how I will engage with professional life. I am, more so than ever, deeply dedicated to pursuing a job that centers or works on human rights, even if not explicitly stated. I’ve always aspired to go to law school and help people oppressed by the US legal system, and the Human Rights Certificate has really helped iron out where and how to do so.

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

ZJ: In the Introduction to Human Rights class, I learned how to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. It can be easy to assume that because human rights haven’t already succeeded in changing the world, that they’ve failed, but that’s not the case. The introduction class helped me realize that human rights have always existed, whether or not they had been named yet or coopted by international governing bodies. Human rights are always transforming and they have provided a valuable tool for movements around the world, from anti-pipeline campaigns to anti-mass incarceration campaigns.

CH: How has the Human Rights Certificate shaped your life outside of academic and professional settings?

ZJ: I’ve made some of my most lasting and rewarding friendships with faculty through the Human Rights Certificate. Smaller class sizes have allowed me to really connect with faculty who are committed to seeing me grow, succeed, and change the world. To this day, I am quite close with all the professors of my Duke Immerse and I find it very enriching to have friends who have worked with human rights sometimes for decades.