By Alexandra Byrne ’23
I find it hard to believe that anyone who is a student at William & Mary would not know the Global Research Institute’s slogan: “Big Ideas Live Here.” It is in big letters on a third-floor wall of the Institute’s home at 427 Scotland Street. It is on t-shirts and flyers. It is mentioned in nearly every introduction for GRI’s numerous events. It is so ubiquitous on campus, just like GRI itself.
The Institute’s catchphrase rings true, though. Every day, students and faculty generate groundbreaking research on the world’s most pressing issues. Big ideas really do find a home in that welcoming yellow house on Scotland Street. I am lucky enough to be a part of one of the newest “big ideas” to join the GRI family, the International Justice Lab (IJL), and I have to say I think it is the biggest of them all.
IJL was the first organization to welcome me to W&M. I applied before I set foot on campus for my freshman year. When I received my acceptance email, classes had not yet begun. I was amazed and astonished that someone would trust me with important research tasks, especially as a freshman who had not even submitted a single college assignment. I was terrified that I was not capable of research work because it had always seemed so inaccessible. But I was also excited to prove myself and expand my abilities. I remember explaining my new role to my roommate, who barely knew me at the time. Now she knows that I can’t stop talking about IJL and how much it has changed my life.
IJL team celebrating the launch of the new lab at GRI
From speaking with other GRI students, I have found that my story is not unique. The teams at GRI find wisdom and creativity in students that the rest of academia has not tapped into. This trust is the foundation of IJL.
IJL is breaking the barriers of conventional academic research. We are currently a five-person all-female team led by the incredible Professor Kelebogile Zvobgo. Prof. Z has made it clear to us that research should not be only for the privileged. The ladies of IJL hail from vastly different backgrounds and break the stereotypes of what a research team is thought to look like.
In one of our early meetings, Prof. Z outlined the concept of the “leaky pipe” of academia. Though many women attend undergraduate institutions and quite a few go on to attain graduate degrees, the number of women, particularly women of color, in senior academic positions is startlingly low. Groups such as IJL help shatter the traditional dominance of men in academia by producing important research while challenging the existing social hierarchy. In less than one year, IJL has become a coveted entity on campus, led by an intersectional group of strong women. I am honored and humbled to work with such intelligent, insightful, and inspiring colleagues.
Another catchphrase I hear a lot at GRI is the idea of bridging the academia-real world divide. IJL does that too. We focus on three main topic areas—human rights, transitional justice, and international law and courts. Our research is so intertwined with the livelihoods and suffering of human rights victims across the globe that our work takes on extra weight. Through political science, we are telling stories that have not been told through data that have not before been collected.
Our current project involves tracking the implementation of the recommendations made by truth commissions, quasi-judicial bodies that are formed after a period of political violence or civil war. Though these commissions produce reports and publish these recommendations, there is little knowledge of whether the changes suggested are ever realized. Thus, IJL is not producing research for other academics. We are producing research that we hope will translate to real change and redress for victims on the ground. As GRI so nobly advocates, we are reaching beyond the ivory tower of academia.
For me, I could not have imagined being a part of such a special group of people. I am motivated every day by the meaningful work we do in IJL. We are creating a space for human rights and untraditional research groups at W&M. I am endlessly grateful to GRI for trusting in this vision. I am appreciative of my IJL teammates who have become my dear friends. Lastly, I am eternally indebted to Prof. Z for trusting in me and helping me grow as a student and as a person. The passion that Prof. Z brings to every IJL meeting is inspirational.
IJL team with W&M’s Chief Diversity Officer, Chon Glover
So yeah, big ideas do live at GRI, but they especially live in IJL. To echo the sentiments of W&M President Katherine Rowe when she met the IJL team last fall, I think we’ve got something going here. Everyone else ought to take notes.