The Oak Institute for Human Rights was established in 1997 by a generous grant from the Oak Foundation. Each year, it hosts an Oak Human Rights Fellow to teach and conduct research while residing at the College. The Institute organizes lectures and other events centered around the fellow’s area of expertise.

The purpose of the fellowship is to offer an opportunity for one prominent practitioner in international human rights to take a sabbatical leave from front-line work to spend the fall semester (September-December) in residence at Colby. This provides the Fellow time for respite, reflection, research, and writing. While all human rights practitioners are eligible, we especially encourage applications from those who are currently or were recently involved in “on-the-ground” work at some level of personal risk. Following the period of the fellowship, the fellow is expected to return home to continue her/his human rights work.

Mission Statement

The Oak Institute for Human Rights champions the struggles for dignity, freedom and justice for people throughout the world. It provides the opportunity for a front-line human rights activist operating in difficult or dangerous circumstances to come to Colby College every fall for respite and reflection. Oak strives to educate the campus and extended community about the work being done by our Fellow. It also encourages members of the community, especially students, to participate in research, internships, and activism on behalf of human rights.


Back in spring of 1997, college president Bill Cotter requested a large grant from the Oak Foundation in Geneva, Switzerland to permanently endow the Oak Institute for the Study of International Human Rights at Colby. He hoped this new initiative would complement another Oak-funded program — a Colby scholarship for international students whose families have been subjected to torture or other forms of political oppression. The centerpiece of the new program was to be a fellowship for a human rights practitioner who would lead a seminar on a particular human rights problem but otherwise enjoy an opportunity to relax and recharge in beautiful, autumnal New England, away from the stresses of their dangerous or difficult fieldwork.

Happily, the Oak Foundation approved the request, and the institute began operating almost immediately. Since 1998, when Oak selected its first fellow, it has bestowed that honor on 24 such activists — including Venuste Kubwimana, our Spring 2020 Fellow from Rwanda. Our past fellows have come from countries all over the world, including Morocco, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Colombia, Canada, Kosovo, Sudan, Palestine, Cambodia, Zimbabwe, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Israel, India, South Africa, Myanmar, and Uganda.

Oak has expanded dramatically since its inauguration in 1997. In addition to hosting the Fellow each fall, we now organize human rights programs (such as lectures and performances) throughout the year; we encourage faculty to include analysis of human rights problems in their courses; we award grants to students hoping to carry out internships with human rights organizations around the world. Indeed, students have become a central part of the Oak experience at Colby College; in recent years, the Oak Student Committee has significantly grown in size.

Oak Fellows

Read more about each Oak Fellow



Valerie Dionne, Director

Valerie M. Dionne is an associate professor of French at Colby College. She received her PhD from Princeton and also participated in a seminar on “Torture and Dignity” with Jay Bernstein at Cornell University’s Summer School of Theory. Her first monograph, Montaigne, écrivain de la conciliation (Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2014) explores the great French thinker’s advocacy for political conciliation during the Wars of Religion. She has also co-edited a volume, “Revelations of Character”: Ethos, Rhetoric and Moral Philosophy in Montaigne, with C. Noirot (Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007). She is the author of several articles on the theme of Justice, Law, and Tolerance, including an essay co-written with Yannik Büchi ’17 on the rights of intersex people in France from antiquity to the present. As an historian of ideas, she teaches a course on the Birth of Human Rights during the French Revolution, and a course on French Intellectuals and Social Justice.


Amya Bhalla, Assistant Director

Amya is responsible for providing strategic direction and operational support for the Institute, including marketing the Oak Fellow program to an international audience, coordinating the application review process of Oak candidates, and serving as the primary contact and support person for the Oak Fellow before and while in residence at Colby. They coordinate with the Oak Fellow and other Colby faculty to develop events related to the Fellow’s area of expertise and support student programming initiatives focused on human rights.

Amya received their B.A. in Anthropology with a Minor in Environmental Studies from Colby College in 2019. While a student at Colby, Amya worked as the editor-in-chief of the monthly political print magazine, Outside Colby, co-chair of the Oak Student Committee, anthropology research assistant, and creative director of WMHB radio station, along with being an active member of many Pugh Center clubs.


Gail Carlson, Co-Instructor

Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Gail Carlson oversees and serves as co-instructor of the Oak GS111 Human Rights in Global Perspective course. In collaboration with the Oak Fellow, Gail leads a seminar that focuses on the year’s theme and highlights the fellow’s personal on-the-ground experiences. In addition, she facilitates the design and implementation of civic engagement projects to further the work of the Oak Fellow and raise public awareness about the year’s human rights issue.

Gail has been teaching in the Environmental Studies Program at Colby for ten years. Gail’s background is in biochemistry, and her courses focus on environmental public health and activism. She regularly incorporates civic engagement projects into her courses that focus on environmental policy-making in the state of Maine. Serving as an assistant director of the Goldfarb Center for Public and Civic Engagement, she oversees several of the center’s major initiatives, including the grant program and Cotter Debate Series.