Zama Coursen-Neff ’93 Discusses Careers in Human Rights

Zama Coursen-Neff speaks to a packed room on Monday afternoon.

Zama Coursen-Neff ’93, Executive Director of the Children’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, gave a talk on careers related to human rights to a group of 39 Davidson students in Union 209 on Monday, September 16.  This session was just one event on a busy schedule for Coursen-Neff, who spent two days at Davidson talking to student groups, classes, and the public about her work.  In this session, she explained her path to her current position and gave advice for those interested in working in human rights or pursuing nonprofit legal work more generally.

Coursen-Neff emphasized that there are many possible paths to pursuing a career in human rights advocacy, and that students should focus on honing their writing and gaining field experience while at Davidson.  She recalled a study abroad trip in Spain her sophomore year and a trip the summer after her junior year to El Salvador (only four months after a war that had left the country shaken up) as two particularly meaningful experiences for her.  She worked in the field right after graduating from Davidson and before attending law school at New York University.  Although she did not love her time at law school and has not worked as an attorney aside from the year she clerked for a federal judge and an extensive pro-bono case she participated in after earning her JD, she told the group that going to law school gave her a valuable perspective.  She also shared work that she did at the U.S.-Mexican border and in Afghanistan, India, and Papua New Guinea.

In addition to sharing her own career story, Coursen-Neff gave the group a few specific pieces of advice.  She recommended cultivating mentors and role models, which were very inspiring to her both personally and professionally.  She also recommended that students simply “get out there and have experiences,” including field work, before deciding on a graduate field of study. She told students,  “If I had created a plan and stuck with it, I never would have seen all the things I didn’t know were out there.”  Most importantly, she said, students should “pursue work that is meaningful and fun.”  She stated that it is important not to martyr oneself for work that is not engaging and to reflect on the kinds of working conditions that will fulfill your needs before jumping into a job.

At least one paid summer internship at the Human Rights Watch headquarters in New York City will be available this summer for a Davidson student. The internship(s) will be funded by the Vann Center for Ethics at Davidson.  More details will be available on WildcatLink later this fall; the application deadline will likely be in early February.  Seniors should also search for Associate positions on the Human Rights Watch website.  These positions, often filled by new graduates of schools like Davidson, typically become available mid-to-late spring semester.

Learn more about Zama Coursen-Neff by reading her bio on the Human Rights Watch website, and stay tuned for information on the summer internship opportunity!

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