A passion for human rights and refugee work

Olivia Britton

HOMETOWN: New Hempstead, NY
MAJORS: Anthropology, Political Science
MINOR: Psychology

Olivia Britton

A self-described “action-oriented person,” Olivia Britton has been on the move for a good part of her time at Union, devoting herself to human rights and refugee work across the globe. She has analyzed education inequities in Haiti, volunteered at a refugee accommodation center in Greece, and interviewed and photographed Syrian families in Italy. Here, she talks about her many research activities and her connection to Union.

Why did you choose Union?

Union has always been a part of me. My parents, Winston Britton ’85 and Martine Cadet ’92, met during an alumni weekend. I grew up hearing their most cherished college stories. My father played football, and witnessing his induction into the Union Athletics Hall of Fame in 2013 also validated my desire to go to Union. I was inspired by his and the other inductees’ testimony about their Union experiences.

What inspired you most about these alumni experiences?

Their themes were all about belonging, lifelong friendships, dedicated professors and endless opportunities. Hearing them, I knew I wanted to continue my life journey as a student at Union – to challenge myself and take full advantage of all of the academic and extracurricular activities.

How did you get involved in research in Haiti?

Through the Psychology Department, I interned with a Miami-based consulting firm during my first winter break. I was assigned to research the Haitian education system. The country’s literacy rate remains one of the lowest in the world. In Haiti, I conducted interviews with youth and staff of health clinics, schools, hospitals and other facilities.

How were you affected by this?

I was constantly exposed to media coverage that exploited the Haitian people’s suffering, but I was surrounded by a people of resiliency, diligence and pride. This was both a humbling and memorable experience. I captured the lives and untold stories of the Haitian people through photography and shared their often-unheard voices through my research. Being Haitian, I was able to pay homage to the land of my mother and my ancestors.

What other refugee populations did you investigate?

After Haiti, I became more perceptive to media portrayals of marginalized populations, and I was able to pursue my interests further through a New York Six Upstate Global Collective Student Summer Research Fellowship. Working under the guidance of Professor Tom Lobe of the Political Science Department, I analyzed the demographics and trends of refugee movements in the Middle East, including Syria.

What did you discover?

My research made me more cognizant of the hardships that refugee and internally displaced populations face when they seek refuge, apply for asylum and transition into a new life. I continued my studies of refugees abroad fall of my junior year on a term abroad in Greece.

Tell us about your term in Greece.

I volunteered at City Plaza, a refugee accommodation center in Athens that houses roughly 400 people who have fled violence and persecution. I connected with people from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, who shared their stories of confronting life’s hardships and pursuing freedom.

And your senior thesis?

I was awarded a Union Klemm Fellowship to develop my thesis, “New Slaves: The Entrepreneurship of Refugee Lives.” Over winter break, I traveled to Calabria, Italy, where I conducted research based on photovoice methodology, an activity-focused research method, prompting individuals to identify, represent and enhance their community by capturing visual representations of everyday life with cameras. Via photovoice I was able to gauge first-hand refugee perspectives of four Syrian families and document the impact of the media on government initiatives and public perception of refugees.

What else did you get involved in while at Union?

I was involved with the Black Student Union and the Caribbean Student Association. I was a mentor for Girls, Inc., a local organization that empowers young women. I also was active on the Judicial Board, Messa House Council and Omicron Delta Kappa, as well as Pi Sigma Alpha, and I presented research at the Steinmetz Symposium.

What comes next for you?

I received a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Award. With the support of this NSF award, I am pursuing a political science doctoral program at Boston University. I would like to use my research skills to help reform policy that affects marginalized populations, and I aim to serve as a liaison between academia and human rights agencies and efforts. Through Union’s support and guidance, I have been able to pursue my passion in research and fulfill my commitment in fostering change.

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