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The first thing you notice about Rick Halperin’s office is the clutter. Books seem to teeter-totter precariously, two-feet high, on his desk.  Papers are strewn about the room, though some sit in slightly more organized piles on the floor. Posters, stickers and photographs line his walls.  It’s so busy that you might not even see the small spectacled Southern Methodist University professor perched behind his desk.

While he might seem small in stature, nearly lost amidst that hodgepodge of books and papers, Dr. Halperin is big at heart. His bursting at the seams office symbolizes how he feels about human rights. He’s eager, bursting at the seams, to tell his students and others about his passion.  And a new human rights major, recently approved by the SMU Board of Trustees, will let him do just that.

SMU will become the fifth university in the country with an undergraduate degree in human rights, and one of the first in the South.  The major will be an official option for students beginning next year.

The SMU Embrey Human Rights Program has been around since 2006, with the university offering a minor in human rights since 2007.  Halperin said he’s positive the new option of a major will draw even more students to SMU.

“We’ve had students at SMU the last few years, literally, from coast to coast who have come here just for the minor because there are so few programs even offering a minor,” he said. “So I am sure that we will continue to attract great students who have a fervor for social justice and human rights and who want to not only see a better world, but they are committed at 18, 19-years-old to working for a better Dallas, a better America, a better world.” 

Halperin wasn’t even a teenager when he began to realize the need for a better world. Growing up in a small Alabama town during the civil rights movement, he said racism was “everywhere.”

“I had my epiphany at seven, when I saw a terrible act, a racially motivated act that culminated in an act of violence and a fatality and at that moment, that was my epiphany,” Halperin said. “I was shocked at the anger and hate speech that I was witnessing…. I was seven, but I heard it all my life, my whole young life.“

He credits his mother for teaching him that all humans deserve to treated with dignity.

“She taught us to trust your principles, if you stand on the side of right you’ll be okay,” he said. “I’ve tried to convey to her how appreciative I have been of the values, the manners, that she helped me embrace with a need to have common courtesy, decency, and listen to people, it’s not rocket science. Her phrase was ‘do good and keep doing good, and don’t find a reason not to do good.’  I know how simplistic that sounds, but it’s really true.”

During his teenage years he learned firsthand that social injustices weren’t just confined to his small hometown. In 1966, as a high school teenager, he studied abroad in Chile.  His wealthy host family was gracious, he recalled, taking him all across the country and “opening his eyes to some of the realities of this world.”

“As I emerged from being a teenager to being a young adult, and having come back from Chile, my horizons were expanded to see that it wasn’t just us as Southerners or Americans, it was global intolerance and vicious hatreds of people because of who they were or who they allegedly were,” he said.

His two Chilean host parents, as well as one of their children, were later killed by Pinochet security forces in the early ‘70s. Halperin still feels the loss of the “adopted” parents who cared for him.

He witnessed even more despair as a young college student studying abroad in Europe. During a visit to Wenceslaus Square in Vienna, he watched as a young Czech medical student, Jan Palach, set himself on fire, in protest of the Russian occupation of his country. The event shook Halperin to the core, and he took a week-long hiatus from school and visited the British Isles.  While in London, he discovered Amnesty International. It was a turning point in his life, a discovery that would also help lead him to his future career.

“It was the first time I’d heard of a human rights organization.  I went to their office and I couldn’t believe that, for everything I believed, there was an organization that was for me.  And they laughed at me, I tried to join and they said ‘you have to be a British citizen,’” he chuckled at the memory. “But they came to the United States and I joined when they opened an office in D.C., and I’ve been with them ever since.”

Halperin, who has served on the Amnesty International board twice, is using his travel experiences to places like refuge camps and conflict zones to teach his students about the atrocities that can take happen throughout the world. Human rights minors are currently required to take just six classes, with one class taught by Halperin. The new major will require ten human rights courses.

Books and classroom time are definitely educational, but Halperin also requires his students to experience the past firsthand. Whether seeking a minor or major in human rights, students will be required to work with a local agency or take a school-organized trip to a country where human rights violations have occurred.  Halperin schedules four trips every year, with one trip to a Holocaust site each December.

We just try to get our students to places where terrible things have occurred and where ramifications of those things are still prevalent, try to get them to come to grips with what happened to innocent people then and why it was allowed to happen and more importantly, why they should work to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Halperin said.

Those trips are eye openers for his students. Halperin said that to his knowledge, SMU is the only school that takes students out into the world, multiple times a year. Students rarely come back the same.

“We have to face great human behavior and we can’t be afraid to face the imperfections of ourselves and frequently those imperfections are really disturbing,” he said. “These are not easy concepts. I think that they force us to ask disturbing and profound questions of ourselves. ‘Who am I as a person? Who are we as a society? And what is my job, individually?’”.

A new crop of students majoring in human rights will begin to ask themselves these questions next fall. And like he has done for the last 26 years at SMU, Halperin will be there to share his experiences with them, to visit with them in his cluttered office, and to encourage them to make a difference in the world.

“I think part of my job is to make the world better for people who are here and people who are not even born yet,” he said.

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