Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies (CHRHS)

Student Spotlight: Layla Beckhardt ’20

Hometown: Brooklyn, NY

Concentration: International Relations with a regional focus in North Africa

What does your job as a student assistant for the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian studies entail? 

As a student assistant, my main responsibility is to help advertise and organize events at the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies. These vary from co-sponsored lectures, our Human Security Seminar series, the center’s launch event and, most importantly, the Hack for Humanity. I also provide logistical and administrative support to Seth as needed. It’s exciting being on the ‘other end’ of the many lectures and events that the Watson Institute hosts. We have the opportunity to invite so many amazing and brilliant speakers to discuss critical themes around human rights and humanitarianism, and having a fully endowed center now dedicated to these issues helps bridge a gap between student interests and academic research & established scholars.

At the first Hack for Humanity, you won a seed grant prize. How did you continue to work on your project after the hackathon? 

The seed grant funding, which was $500 in 2018, allowed me and my teammates to begin running test trials for our project. We focused on using vetiver grass, which is native to Bangladesh, to mitigate the damage from landslides in Cox Bazaar refugee camps. With the funding, we purchased vetiver bulbs, soil, tubing, and other supplies to set up control groups in the UEL greenhouse. This way, we were able to get a more concrete understanding of how vetiver grows under different conditions. We compiled our research into a more cohesive proposal and partnered with Dr. Ruhul Abid, who was a mentor at the Hack for Humanity and works for a global health non-profit in Bangladesh. Dr. Abid presented our research in front of larger NGOs working in Cox’s Bazaar (UNHCR, IOM and the Bangladesh Ministry of Health). My partner is now in the MPA program, but we’ve remained engaged with the project and are hoping to pursue it more intensively after graduation.

This year, Hack for Humanity will focus on Refugee and Migrant Health. Why do you think events like this, which ask students to critically consider humanitarian issues, are important for Brown students to engage with? 

At Brown, students are able to study issues around refugee justice and human rights in an academic context. There are so many amazing courses dedicated specifically to these issues, and interested students can obtain a large breadth of knowledge. But outside of internship opportunities and individual projects, there can be a dearth of chances for practical application of this knowledge to real-life scenarios. The Hack for Humanity is great for precisely this reason. It’s open to students from all disciplines and backgrounds to spend a weekend focused narrowly on innovation and response to refugee and migrant health. We also have a set of amazing mentors who are all experts in these issues and provide critical insight to students within a set time frame. It’s a practice both in knowledge sharing and creative thinking around humanitarian issues, which I think is a rare opportunity. Students who have not yet entered the field can provide fresh ideas that spark new innovations around these topics. I found the experience so rewarding and informative, and the mentors I spoke with while participating were very enthusiastic about the way students’ perspectives can change or reinvigorate their work!

How has your work at the CHRHS and with Hack for Humanity informed, or been influenced by, your studies elsewhere at Brown? 

I’m very interested in studying and, hopefully, working with refugees across a multitude of geographic regions. I got involved with the first Hack for Humanity because of a course I took that involved studying ethnic conflict in Myanmar, before the outbreak of the current refugee crisis. That intersection of my studies at Brown and exposure to scholars with a myriad of approaches to addressing human rights and humanitarian issues through CHRHS has reaffirmed my desire to enter the field after graduating. One of my favorite things about Brown is that with the open curriculum, I’ve been able to take courses across so many disciplines that still have a central thread and emphasis on human rights. My understanding of the field through extra-curricular activities and coursework encompasses more than just an international relations approach. As I go through my senior year, I’m excited (and a bit scared!) about the prospect of applying my knowledge of human rights to working in the discipline.

--Elise Ryan '21