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Students credit mentors for their post-graduate honors

By Anne Bromley

Cambodia and Scotland are the destinations for two U.Va. undergraduates who plan to work on human rights issues in different areas next year.

Ryann Collins
Photos by Rebecca Arrington
Ryann Collins

Foreign affairs major Ryann Collins will go to Cambodia with a Luce scholarship to help investigate Khmer Rouge war crimes. Political and social thought major James Meyerle won a fellowship to St. Andrews University to study the Scottish Enlightenment and questions of ethics.

Both fourth-year students credit Michael J. Smith, the Thomas C. Sorenson Professor of Political and Social Thought, as one of their most positive influences at U.Va. “He fostered a sense of responsibility in all of us as members of the human community,” Meyerle said. Smith’s class on ethics and human rights made a strong impact on Collins, she said, as did James Sofka’s course on international law.

“Both these students care deeply about ideas and about making a vital connection between their ideas and the lives they lead,” Smith said. “I am delighted that they will have the opportunity to pursue their work in a challenging setting.”

James Meyerle
James Meyerle

Working as an intern with the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal in Rwanda was one of the keys to Collins getting the Luce scholarship. Another was the principal of the International Residential College, Brad Brown, an associate professor of commerce, who encouraged her to pursue this particular award.

“I would never have applied if I wasn’t in the International Residential College,” said Collins, who lives there this year. In addition to Brown’s support, the College Fellowships Office “ has been great and helped by doing mock interviews,” she said. “It’s exciting to compete on a national level and represent the University of Virginia.”

The Henry Luce Foundation considers non-specialists in Asian studies for year-long internships and jobs that will allow them to experience and appreciate Asian culture. It selects 18 people a year. Collins is the seventh U.Va. student to receive one of these scholarships.

Although it has been more than 25 years since the Khmer Rouge tried to take over the country through a campaign of terror and violence, there has been mixed support for using an international tribunal to bring the group’s members to justice. Collins, who will learn Khmer this summer, said she’ll probably help local courts pursue that work.

Her commitment to human rights activism helps her not be afraid of spending time in areas most tourists wouldn’t dream of visiting. “If you go in with an open mind and get involved with the people, they respond and treat you well,” said the experienced world traveller. She has also offered her skills to refugees relocated here, teaching English to people who have left war-torn countries, such as the former Yugoslavia, Myanmar and Congo. She works through the International Rescue Committee’s Charlottesville office.

“The strength of Ryann’s character makes her stand out as a potential Luce Scholar and as a human being,” wrote Nicole Hurd, director of U.Va.’s Office for Fellowships and Undergraduate Research, in her recommendation. “She is not naïve about the complexities of the field she has chosen to pursue — conflict resolution. She does not believe in simple answers.”

Pursuing human rights on a different path, James Meyerle has a dream to become a judge one day, and the St. Andrew’s fellowship will help him further that ambition. A native of Boulder, Colo. Meyerle wanted to come to U.Va. after visiting his older brother in school here. James eventually decided to go into the Political and Social Thought Program and is writing his senior thesis on justice and judging.

“I’ve known Jim since he was my first-year advisee, and then as a vital participant in the program in political and social thought,” Smith said. “Jim has a kind of restless, even relentless, intellectual curiosity. He refuses to adopt conventional wisdom almost on principle — and he has always proven willing to take risks.”

The first U.Va. student to receive this award, Meyerle will concentrate on philosophy for the year and earn a Master’s in Literature. Some of the ethical questions he’ll focus on include how we treat others and what it means to be a good person.

“Studying David Hume and the Scottish Enlightenment fits in with my thesis,” Meyerle said.

The St. Andrew’s Society, nearing its 300th anniversary, is one of the oldest clubs in the U.S., established to help Scottish immigrants and now offering aid in the form of scholarships and public service. Meyerle, who has never been to Scotland, claims his Scottish heritage on his mother’s side.

Although he’d like to work for a couple years after getting his Master’s, he hopes to start the fifth generation of attorneys in his family, become a litigator and go before juries.

“To be a judge, you need to be an academic, to grasp the big issues,” he said of his ultimate goal. “The court and jury system is what makes this country work.”


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