Battling fears of ‘others’


Michelle Van Akin ’13 has a lofty goal—to battle the effects of xenophobia (or the fear of foreigners) on refugees in their countries of asylum.

“It is my passion, my mission, to ease the tensions between immigrants and citizens of their adoptive homes and increase understanding,” states Van Akin.

And she just may succeed. Van Akin has been awarded a Rotary Global Grant to pursue a master’s degree in human rights and humanitarian action.

“It is truly the program of my dreams, combining theoretical and practical courses on human rights law, conflict resolution and management of humanitarian projects,” she says.

The Wheaton senior will graduate later this month with a double major in anthropology and international relations. She didn’t expect to study anthropology but was drawn to the field after taking an intro course with Professor M. Gabriela Torres.

“Understanding that cultural practices which seem bizarre to me might be natural to someone else was challenging to accept,” recalls Van Akin, “but it sparked a desire within me to continue learning more.”

This won’t be Van Akin’s first experience abroad. She spent the fall semester of her junior year in Paris, then went to South Africa the following spring. During that time, she completed an independent research project on Somali refugees living in Cape Town. Van Akin refers to the project as “life-changing.”

“I was able to interview several Somalis, and hearing their stories had a huge impact on me,” she explains. “Realizing the extreme discrimination and violence that Somali refugees, and refugees in general, face was disheartening. South Africa is a beautiful country, but it still has many battles to deal with.”

This summer, the Rotary scholar will return to Paris and begin classes at the prestigious Institut d’Etudes Politiques (Sciences Po)—one of the world’s most reputable schools for the study of the social sciences.

After earning her master’s degree, Van Akin hopes to work for an international non-governmental organization (NGO) as an advocate for refugee rights.

“Immigrants are not aliens or non-humans,” she says. “They are people, families that, in an unfamiliar and forbidding environment, need the helping hands of those who understand their plight.”