Bill and Linda Cotter. Bill Cotter, 1997 Colby College president and architect of the Oak Institute

Bill and Linda Cotter. Bill Cotter, 1997 Colby College president and architect of the Oak Institute

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 19 such activists — including Jodi Koberinski, our 2015 Fellow. Although Koberinski hails from Canada, most of our Fellows have come from the Global South: Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Colombia (twice), Kosovo, Sudan, Palestine, Cambodia, Zimbabwe (twice), the Philippines, Bangladesh, Israel, India, South Africa, Myanmar, and Uganda.

One year (2013) we had two fellows, a husband-wife team from Myanmar. Once, in 2003, Raji Sourani, a Palestinian human rights attorney, was unable to obtain a visa from the U.S. to travel to Maine and enjoy the fellowship at all. This was not entirely unprecedented: Our very first fellow, Pakistani journalist Zafaryab Ahmed was only able to come in mid-December of 1998, after classes already had ended. His government had detained him for writing about slave-like working conditions for children in that country.

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 sponsor opportunities for students to conduct research on human rights issues; and 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 ballooned to include more than 30 members.