Sometimes changing the game means changing the law. That’s how Zama Coursen-Neff does it. And in the process, she’s improving the lives of young people around the world.
Consider the hundreds of thousands of children who might be soldiers. As recently as 1998, 300,000 children were fighting wars somewhere in the world. Then, Human Right’s Watch’s Children’s Rights Division, working closely with others, mounted a campaign exposing the fate of children on the battlefield. Global attitudes began to change. Now more than 150 countries have agreed to standards that keep young people from the front lines, and about half as many children are fighting.

Child soldiers are just one of Coursen-Neff’s priorities at Human Rights Watch. She also works to expose the widespread war tactic of targeted attacks on schools, teachers and students, and to make schools off limit to warring parties. “I draw on my Davidson education every day,” she says. An international scholarship to study in El Salvador while at Davidson inspired Coursen-Neff to follow this path. “I met people who took extraordinary risks to live what they believed in,” she says, “and it was transformative,”

Coursen-Neff extends similar opportunities to Davidson interns placed at Human Rights Watch by the Vann Center for Ethics. She hopes they, too, will be inspired by their Davidson experiences. “You want to see people with Davidson values in leadership positions,” she says.

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More from Zama Coursen-Neff

How Davidson changed her game

“Professors in the English department, including Cynthia Lewis and Randy Nelson, were an inspiration to me. They pushed me when it came to good, crisp writing and clear analytical thinking — the skills I use every day. They encouraged me to go to law school. They pushed me academically like never before. I had come through the Louisiana public school system, and didn’t know I was capable of doing the kind of work required at Davidson!”

How she came to Human Rights Watch

“After my El Salvador experience, Davidson helped me find a paid volunteer post on the U.S.-Mexico border through the Presbyterian Church USA. I was doing paralegal work for detained refugees, helping people apply for political asylum and documenting their fear of returning to their own countries. Some of the best research was from Human Rights Watch — my first exposure to the organization. After law school, I ended up at Human Rights Watch on a fellowship. I’ve been there 15 years now.”

What it’s like to work with Davidson undergrads

“I’ve been working with two Davidson interns funded by Vann Center for Ethics. These undergrads are incredibly smart. They can write and think far beyond what you would expect at this stage. I’ve really appreciated Davidson’s efforts to provide opportunities for students to take big step toward their careers, and it’s nice to be able to contribute by doing something with students now. If Davidson hadn’t funded me to go to El Salvador and identify that opportunity, I doubt I would have ended up in this field.”

Why invest in Davidson

“Davidson values set a Davidson education apart. The high ethical standards, the honor code, the sense of service and community — they all encourage thoughtful intellectual pursuit. Davidson produces a lot of people who go into law, business, medicine, ministry, areas where they can make a difference in others’ lives and in their communities.”

How are we cultivating more game changers like Zama Coursen-Neff?
Learn about the campaign priorities.

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