Student Highlight

Sydney Leigh Smith
Thursday, January 27, 2022

Sydney Leigh Smith (she/her) shares her experience as a student in the Human Rights Studies M.A. Program so far.

In which program are you enrolled and when is your expected graduation date?

Human Rights Studies MA; Fall 2022

What is your research focus in the HRSMA program?
My research focus concerns state-perpetrated sexual violence and gender-based violence. All of my work has centered around creating nuanced data collection systems for human rights abuses–specifically sexual violence. Such systems detail how violence is carried out in an attempt to understand why it is carried out. I utilize a feminist lens in all of the work I do, from data collection to data interpretation and theory creation, which I believe is lacking in the specific field of state-perpetrated sexual violence. 
Which class would you recommend to other students interested in the same issues as you?
Human Rights & Human Wrongs with Professor Bruce Cronin
Where did you grow up? In which countries and/or cities have you lived?
I grew up in Lake Orion, Michigan. I have lived in Ann Arbor, Miami, and New York City!
What is a must-read for a human rights student?
Rape During Civil War by Dara Kay Cohen 
Can you describe any volunteer or extracurricular activities that you have been a part of during your time at Columbia and how this experience has impacted you?
I am currently the Vice-President of the Human Rights Graduate Group (HRGG). We will be hosting amazing events this year, ranging from internship and career panels to group hikes! I am also a new member of Columbia's Amnesty International Group. 
What has been your favorite moment in the program so far?
I am really enjoying the small class sizes through which my classmates and I can openly discuss ideas in an informal setting. 
What has been the most challenging part of the program?
I am constantly challenged by the coursework and the people I engage within the program, causing my ideas and opinions to constantly evolve. There are many things (for lack of a better term) that I thought I had a firm stance on, yet my opinions are being actively challenged, forcing me to think critically more than I ever have. 
What are your goals (professional or academic) after graduation? Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I will continue data collection and work related to state-perpetrated sexual violence, which is my true passion. I also plan to attend law school and work as an international human rights lawyer. 
What is your favorite spot to study or spend time on campus?
When the weather permits, I really enjoy sitting outside on the grass in the center of campus. 
What is one thing that your peers would never guess about you or might find surprising?
I can speak Swahili! 
If you were to start a book club, which book would be first on your list? Why?
The first book on my list would be Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis. This is the first book I read regarding the abolitionist movement and the complete dismantling of the prison-industrial complex. Although my specific research is not on the prison system, I find it to be one of the most pressing issues in the United States and worldwide, therefore I dedicate a lot of my free time to learning about and challenging contemporary prison/policing/surveillance systems. I would want everyone in my book club to read this and share their ideas on a problem that is so deeply rooted and difficult to disestablish. 
Anything else you wish to share about yourself or your experience in the program/Columbia so far?
I am loving the Columbia community, especially my amazing cohort full of incredibly welcoming and social individuals. Also, my profile would be incomplete without mentioning my dog and the love of my life, Diamond Baby. If you know me, he is a core aspect of my personality. I am a HUGE animal lover; I have been vegan for many years, and I am incredibly passionate about animal advocacy. Adopt, don't shop, people!