Editor’s comment: This essay begins a new blog category of examples of ways that institutions – educational, research, or associations can promote awareness in psychology and psychologists of and education about human rights. We invite readers to send their own experiences of how your institutions or organizations have worked to promote human rights.

Why a Psychologist Might Want to Become a Human Rights Fellow

Deborah A. Stiles, Applied Educational Psychology and School Psychology, Webster University

The Webster University Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies combines support for teaching, research, and service to promote global citizenship among its students, staff, and alumni. Human rights are the foundation for global civil society, and the Institute is an important resource for spurring positive change and inspiring future leaders.

Webster’s Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies was founded 12 years ago by Arthur Sandler, a professor of philosophy. Most of the Webster faculty who are human rights fellows are professors of philosophy, history, international relations or political science. There are three fellows who are psychologists. To become a human rights fellow at Webster, one must be a full-time or adjunct professor at Webster University and have a research and/or teaching expertise in some aspect of international human rights. To apply, they must provide a letter of interest and a CV for the current Institute fellows to consider, and then they have a vote.

Two of the psychologists who are fellows saved their original applications. For each of them, protecting human rights is part of their personal missions and their professional practice as psychologists.

For Dr. Sheetal Shah, she “takes research into the classroom by sharing real life situations of individuals who form special target groups like commercial sex workers and victims of human trafficking, men and women, bought and sold for sexual exploitation.” On her application she wrote, “Every day, I witness violation of basic human rights like right to health, to education, this could be in the form of a woman or man who is forced to have unprotected sex, hence vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections or beaten brutally when they fail to payout the debt as part of their debt bondage! This is not far away in countries known to violate human rights but in the Netherlands which is representative of the globalized/advanced world. When students are aware of this reality that co-exists with theirs, they acknowledge the fact that access to basic human rights is a privilege.”

With encouragement from the Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies, Dr. Shah became the Project Leader for The Bijlmer Project, an NGO which explores the psycho-social needs of victims of human trafficking and provides support and counseling.

On her human rights fellow application, Dr. Debbie Stiles wrote, “I am a psychologist who has dedicated her professional life to understanding and helping children and adolescents in schools. I have extensive experience working with vulnerable and “at-risk” children and finding ways to promote their psychological resilience and well-being. Over the years, Webster University gave me the opportunity to visit schools, consult, and conduct research in thirteen countries of the world; these experiences gave me cross-cultural perspectives on children’s development, needs, and rights. As required by the Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies, I have a scholarly background and history of activism in the field of human rights, especially child rights. I have attended every human rights conference at Webster University; I presented at Webster’s 2011 conference, ‘Refugee and Migrant Rights’ and each year I have offered a graduate course in conjunction with the conference. My background includes giving several presentations on child rights and human rights at professional conferences and incorporating human rights into applied psychology articles and book chapters. I also produced three youtube videos on child rights and I communicate with the Child Rights Home in the Netherlands.”

Today I am grateful for the support of the Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies, an organization that validates my dedication to making sure that children’s rights are respected, protected, and fulfilled.

Although only Webster faculty can become human rights fellows at Webster University, other universities, organizations, and professional associations might also consider having a process for psychologists to become human rights fellows.


  1. I also want to become a human rights fellow. Can you please explain the procedure for it. Thanks.

    1. this is something that was done through Dr. Stile’s institution – perhaps write to her separately.

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