​RWU Students Work to Free Imprisoned Scholars Around the World

Through advocacy to federal lawmakers and raising awareness with people around the world, RWU’s Advocacy Seminar has helped free 5 imprisoned scholars since 2005

Juan Siliezar
A sticker designed by students.
A design for a sticker made by students from RWU's Scholars at Risk Advocacy Seminar that advocates for Ilham Tohti, a scholar who is serving a life sentence in China. The seminar engages students in hands-on advocacy work to help free the scholars around the world.

BRISTOL, R.I. – A group of students are sitting at desks brainstorming ideas for a project while their professor sits across from them guiding the discussion. It could pass as any other college class, but when you dive deeper into their work, you realize there is more happening here than what it seems. Because for these RWU students and the people they are trying to help, there is something bigger at stake than just a grade.

There is a life hanging in the balance.

This semester that life belongs to Ilham Tohti, a scholar who is serving a life sentence in China for speaking out against the religious and cultural persecution of the Uyghur people inhabiting the northwestern region of the country.

A small group of RWU students are working on his case as part of a project-based learning partnership between Roger Williams University and Scholars at Risk, an international human rights organization that promotes academic freedom at the global level.

As part of the course, RWU students engage in hands-on advocacy work to help free imprisoned scholars around the world.

For Tohti, this means students are advocating on his behalf locally and nationally by gathering petition signatures and designing creative campaigns to raise awareness. Students will also visit Washington, D.C. to try and gain support of lawmakers.

“These students are not dealing in any hypotheticals,” said Associate Professor of Creative Writing Adam Braver, who oversees the course. All the work they do makes a difference, he said. “There are times when 10 people in Bristol, Rhode Island have had an effect on people around the world.”

Since 2005 – including when the course was formerly known as the PEN America Collaborative course – RWU students have worked on five cases where imprisoned scholars were released.

Image of student from campaign
In 2015, students conceived and helped launch SAR’s #Free2Think international awareness campaign – a viral social media campaign that spread around the world.
Image Credit: Courtesy of RWU Scholars at Risk

And in 2015, students conceived and helped launch SAR’s #Free2Think international awareness campaign – a viral social media campaign that spread around the world.

Olivia Fritz – a senior who is taking the course for a second year – says that along with the impact students can have, the course allows students to gain and expand upon key professional skills and skills students bring with them from their other major or minor courses.

Nicole Anderson, a junior taking the seminar for the first time, agrees.

“It brings out the skills you’re learning about in other classes and puts them toward real settings,” she said.

A lot of the work the seminar students do is on campus but through social media campaigns and some off-campus events, it reaches much further.

The most notable way is through the annual trip to D.C., which gives students the chance to advocate directly to legislators in hopes of getting the U.S. leaders to sign petitions or letters of support. While there, students also get to coordinate directly with other SAR groups working on the case.

Adrienne Wooster '19 says the trip is a great a way to build communication skills and network with fellow SAR networks. It also provides fresh ideas to bring back and implement on campus, she says.

Group photo of SAR Students
Students from this semester's RWU Scholars at Risk Advocacy Seminar course.

Though breakthroughs can take years, the students say when progress is made on a case it’s all worth it. Even a simple 'thank you' is enough motivation to keep working tirelessly.

Recently, RWU students spoke via Skype with Jewher Ilham, the daughter of Ilham Tohti, who expressed her gratitude for their efforts.

“It’s stuff like that that makes you feel really connected to it,” Anderson said.

“You feel like you’re really contributing to a larger concept of the world,” said senior Emma Ledoux, referring to promoting freedom of speech. “It’s really fulfilling that we are contributing. We are doing something that’s going to help someone.”

With moments like that in their mind, the students in the seminar course carry on their brainstorming with diligent efforts.

After all, someone’s life hangs in the balance.

To learn more about RWU Scholars at Risk Advocacy Seminar visit their Facebook page or contact Adam Braver at abraver@rwu.edu. Sign a petition to support Ilham Tohti in the Common from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday, March 1.

At RWU, we develop Civic Scholars who believe in community-engaged work. That’s why we commit to providing every student an opportunity that empowers them to put their knowledge and skills to the test solving real-world problems and creating meaningful change with community partners. Learn more about the Civic Scholars program and how to help us reach our goal of every student participating in civic scholarship.