Higher education has a critical role preparing all types of professionals who are needed in the fight against human trafficking. As part of their overall effort, many universities now offer courses that focus exclusively on the nature of trafficking and the impact that it has on both victims and society as a whole. Instructors can teach human trafficking in a manner that meets high academic standards while simultaneously empowering students to become part of the solution.
I have had the privilege of offering two types of multi-disciplinary trafficking courses for the State University of New York at Albany. The first version that I taught was for the UAlbany College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity. The course featured several short films to illustrate trafficking practices in ways that I could not adequately describe in a lecture, but the format otherwise had a fairly traditional structure that measured student performance with exams and term papers. I utilized a more innovative approach for a shorter, one-credit trafficking course that I taught for the UAlbany Honors College in fall 2018.
The Honors College version utilized an applied learning strategy with a deliberate international perspective to help students become informed and engaged global citizens. Students took short quizzes on the lectures and required reading, but grades were mostly determined by the quality of a special project that each student completed to help reduce human trafficking and/or assist trafficked survivors. Developing a project allowed students to acquire at least as many insights as they would have gained by preparing a traditional research paper. Assigning a project offered the additional advantage of giving students the satisfaction of being able to respond in a meaningful way to a problem that they were unfamiliar with at the beginning of the semester but which almost invariably horrified them as they learned more about it.
Students were encouraged to make the course their own and were advised that they could do so in a variety of ways consistent with their interests. To facilitate this process, students were required to draft personal learning objectives at the beginning of the semester. Each student also submitted a final report as the course wound down. The report described the student’s project and included a research component that connected a substantive dimension of the course content to the type of project that the student decided to do. The report also had to include a brief personal reflection that summarized major insights that were gained as a result of the student’s experience.
- One student wrote a poem about the pain that trafficked victims experience and featured it in a five-minute video. (See sidebar)
- One student was the president of the UAlbany Taekwondo Club. He convinced his club and members of three other campus organizations (the Mixed Martial Arts Collective Club, Students Stopping Trafficking and the Exploitation of People, and Peace Action) to sponsor four events on campus during Human Trafficking Awareness Month. One of the events featured an expert panel that included an FBI special agent, a probation officer, and the Safe Harbor Case Manager at the St. Anne Institute, a private, nonprofit agency that offers a comprehensive range of services to vulnerable children and their families. The events were also used to collect funds for Eyes Wide Open, a local charity whose mission is “to provide restorative care and a sanctuary of healing and hope for women survivors of sex trafficking.”
- Two students used their interest in the law to lobby for relevant legislation. One pending bill that they identified, for example, would enhance services for trafficked survivors in New York. The students contacted state legislators and the appropriate committees both before and after the midterm elections in order to maximize the impact of their efforts.
- One student focused on helping UAlbany students recognize trafficked workers who might be used in restaurants, nail salons, and other places that students routinely patronize. He developed and exhibited a poster highlighting both the signs of trafficking and the telephone numbers that a person can call when trafficking is suspected.
- Two students independently collaborated with different groups to educate members of the UAlbany community about human trafficking and to solicit donations for trafficked survivors. One student collected several bags of clothing for the clients of a local nonprofit organization that operates a shelter for trafficked and at-risk juveniles. The other collected 130 items (e.g., soap, toothpaste, art supplies, and objects that survivors can smell and touch during therapy) for young women who are being helped by the Safe Harbor initiative at the St. Anne Institute. The student had an opportunity to tour the institute and speak with staff when dropping off the donations.
- One student volunteered for several hours at the St. Anne Institute in order to get direct experience working with trafficked and at-risk youths. He assisted residents with their homework, served meals, and helped supervise recreation.
- Two students designed and hung posters on campus to heighten awareness of common products that are made by slave and exploited labor. The posters also provided information about Fair Trade alternatives and the stores where Fair Trade items can be purchased.
- One student focused on the illegal trafficking of human organs. As part of this initiative, she developed a brochure to promote legal organ donations in the United States and organized an event to educate attendees about the importance of these donations.
- Two students organized free movie nights featuring films about domestic and international human trafficking. The students also led brief discussions with the audience after the films concluded.
- Finally, some students decided to do independent study projects in lieu of taking direct action. The only limitation that the syllabus imposed was that the students who chose to do an independent study had to select a topic that had direct policy or practical implications. Papers that students submitted included ways of reducing forced child marriages, the effectiveness of different strategies that can be used to motivate companies to end their use of slave/exploited labor, and potential ways of stopping the trafficking of Albino organs in parts of Africa. One student compared four successful anti-trafficking organizations in different parts of the world and then characterized their service models by the types of advocacy, treatment and prevention services that they offered. Another focused on the use of exploited children who grow much of the world’s cocoa. She then assessed the strength of the Hershey Company’s stated intentions to adopt Fair Trade practices.
Taken as a whole, the students did a remarkable job. Several even submitted extra-credit projects proposing new types of legislation, ways of reducing the importation of products that are made with slave labor, and strategies to increase border security in ways that would most impact human traffickers. The creativity, amount, and value of the work that the students did exceeded all expectations. The Honors College students also tended to be much more engaged during class discussions than the students who did traditional papers and exams for my other trafficking course. This observation has convinced me to incorporate projects into my three-credit course as well. Other instructors of human trafficking courses may want to at least consider allowing students to do action-based projects for extra credit.
I am not naïve about the long-term impact of these projects. At the individual level, some students indicated that they planned to continue their volunteering and/or fund-raising activities, and a few even reported that they had decided to pursue full-time careers fighting human trafficking. It would nevertheless be a mistake to overstate the influence that student projects are likely to have on people who attend a panel discussion or read a poster that was hung on a dormitory bulletin board. I will be offering a version of the Honors College course at a local high school this spring, and it remains to be seen how well an action-based approach will work at a lower academic level. That said, every little bit helps. In the words of the noted minister and activist Edward Everett Hale, “I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something.”