Thanks to SIPA student Jake Sprang MIA ’19, Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy concentration, for this guest post. You can read the case for the Urban and Social Policy concentration from Dylan Hoey MPA’19 here.

When I was applying to graduate school, I focused above all on finding the right “fit.” I was looking for a school and a program that merged my interests in human rights, international development and humanitarian response. When I came to Admitted Students’ Day, I had been accepted into SIPA to study Economic and Political Development, and was torn between three different universities. By the end of the day, I knew I would be going to SIPA and that I would be studying human rights and humanitarian policy.

During Admitted Students’ Day, I had the privilege of hearing from the directors of several of the concentrations. But, when I sat down in the information session with Professor Elazar Barkan and Susannah Friedman, Directors for the Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy concentration, everything clicked. Professor Barkan told the room that, when deciding which program to study, we needed to focus on what we wanted our professional identity to be. It was at that moment, I knew that being “development professional” wasn’t what I wanted. If I wanted to work in humanitarian response, I needed to study humanitarian response. That night, I switched to humanitarian policy, accepted my offer letter, and haven’t looked back. Since I made that decision, I have constantly been validated that I made the right choice for me. While there are many reasons why I’m proud to be in the HRHP concentration, there are three that stand out above the rest.

1. Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy gives students a more cohesive analytical framework that other concentrations. In HRHP, we learn about approaching human rights and humanitarian response from a rights-based approach. Simply put, when we study humanitarian response, we start by focusing on ensuring and upholding the human rights and dignity of people affected by complex emergencies. We focus on the rights they are denied and how we as responders must work with them to ensure their rights as individuals and a community are protected throughout all phases of response. This approach is incredibly unique at SIPA. While many concentrations, especially Economic and Political Development and the MPA in Development Practice, focus on building practical skills, they do not provide the cohesive strategy for analyzing problems that will be faced in human rights careers. It’s like have a bunch of tools without a toolbox. On the other hand, the HRHP program gives students both: the tools to implement humanitarian response, and the toolbox: the analytical framework of a rights-based approach.

2. Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy is the most flexible concentration at SIPA, allowing students to customize the program to their needs. One thing I love about the human rights and humanitarian policy concentration is the fact that I can build experience in the areas that most interest me. For example, if I want to learn about Water and Sanitation in Complex Emergencies, that class is an HRHP elective, cross-listed at the Mailman School of Public Health. Or, if I want to learn about the rights of Refugees, Forced Migration, and Displacement, I can take that course through the Institute for the Study of Human Rights. I can do the same with the Law School, studying Transitional Justice, or Gender Justice. And if I want to take a non-HRHP course, I have the space in my schedule, due to the flexibility offered by the program, which has less core requirements than other concentrations. HRHP gives me the opportunity to seek out the courses that interest me and develop the practical skills that I want to obtain. The program lets me choose the tools that I want in my toolbox.

3. I want my professional identity to be firmly grounded in Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy. At the end of the day, you need to pick the SIPA concentration that fits best for you. For me, I want to identify as someone working in the humanitarian field coming with a strong grounding in human rights. Designing humanitarian response programming is vastly different from development programming. To be a humanitarian, I realized that I needed to study humanitarian response. I’ve seen the importance of this professional identity through some of my cross-listed courses, with both development and humanitarian students. My colleagues have built an amazing set of skills for analyzing and designing international development programs. However, these skills don’t quite fit with the humanitarian field. It’s like asking a plumber to fix your roof. If you want to seek a career in human rights or humanitarian response, you need to make sure that you have the right tools and toolbox for the job. You can only get those through the HRHP concentration.

In closing, I want to make a small plea. When looking at the world today, it’s clear that human rights are under attack. The foundations of the human rights order developed after the Second World War is being eroded by the rise of nationalistic regimes across the globe. While this human rights system was and remains deeply, deeply flawed, it was the only system we had to protect vulnerable people from oppression and the deprivation of their rights and dignity. On the humanitarian side, things are equally grim. Mass displacement of people, driven by conflict, climate change, natural disasters and poverty is leaving millions of people in need of humanitarian relief. With the global North becoming increasingly unwilling to act, lower and middle-income countries are largely footing the bill. The need for humanitarian relief is greater than ever, and will only grow more and more pressing.

We need future policymakers who are passionate, intelligent and dedicated to addressing these growing challenges. Pick the concentration that fits best for you, but I know that I wouldn’t feel as fulfilled studying anywhere – or anything – else.