Working in Human Rights: Alumna Profile
Máiréad Collins only completed her PhD in politics and international studies in 2010, but she’s already spent time working as a human rights observer and ‘ecumenical accompanier’ in the middle of one of the most politically fraught pieces of land in the world.
Between June and September 2011, Máiréad lived and worked in the West Bank region, a key area in the conflict between Palestine and neighboring Israel.
She was there as an employee of EAPPI (the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel). Her role involved observing and reporting on human rights violations, working with community leaders and INGOs (international non-governmental organizations), and providing on-the-ground research for United Nations organizations UNICEF and UNOCHA.
“Being able to immerse myself, as far as possible, in the life of a West Bank village and thus get a sense of the fear and frustration they live with on a daily basis is something I feel very lucky to have experienced,” Máiréad says. She adds, “No amount of reports on the situation there can clarify the reality of their lives as much as being there every day and seeing the impact firsthand.”
Varied university career
Máiréad had been keen to visit the region, after hearing stories from friends who’d been there. However, she says she hadn’t really expected the opportunity to come up, and certainly not so soon.
In fact, though Máiréad has a longstanding interest in human rights – having joined Amnesty International while in secondary school – she did not actually begin her university career in this field. Her undergraduate degree, completed at the National University of Ireland, was a BA jointly awarded in English literature and philosophy.
She also spent an additional year studying history and psychology, before completing her two final research essays on ‘Desire in the Work of Leonard Cohen’ and ‘Analysis of “Deep” Environmental Philosophy’.
From here, Máiréad progressed to an MA in ethical and cultural studies, taking courses in pragmatism, hermeneutics, phenomenology, and philosophy of art, before completing a thesis with the title: “Narrating the ‘Other’: A Critique of Paul Ricoeur, in Light of the Great Irish Famine.”
For her PhD, she moved north, from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland. During her five years of research at Queen’s University Belfast, she also shifted her attention northwards, focusing on the aftermath of years of violent conflict in Northern Ireland.
Range of skills
In particular, this involved examining issues relating to human rights violations, transitional justice processes, and peace-building processes – all of which, of course, provided good preparation for work in the West Bank.
Indeed, Máiréad says all of her degrees have been useful. “Studying philosophy, in particular, has helped me to analyse complicated documents, and is always very beneficial in terms of learning how to structure an argument.”
Meanwhile her doctorate studies provided regular exposure to the “policy documents and reports” that are now a large part of her current role, as a research and policy assistant with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Consortium in Belfast.
As for the future, she’s keen to continuing pursuing research in the field of human rights, perhaps returning to a more academic environment at some point. She’d also like to travel more, improve her language skills, and take on new adventures – including completing the GR10 hiking route across the Pyrenees, and participating in the Gaelforce Race (which includes kayaking, hill-running and cycling).
Her advice for others? “Grasp every opportunity, and also look at voluntary roles. Maintaining a narrow vision of what you want to do closes you off to opportunities and experiences.”
- This article was originally published as part of the QS Top Grad School Guide 2013. Download the full guide here >
This article was originally published in October 2012 . It was last updated in January 2020