By Lauren Coffey, The Daily Iowan
Zach Heffernen stumbled into his passion.
He was handed a book his freshman year at the University of Iowa focusing on human rights and was hooked from the start.
“It started with my freshman year, the University of Iowa Center for Human Rights had a program called One Treaty, One Book,” he said. “Each incoming freshman received a book about child soldiers in Africa. I wanted to help … I went to Senegal last summer and got involved in other human-rights organizations. It all started with the center.”
When the UI Center for Human Rights faced closure due to a university funding cut in September 2012, fighting for the organization that sparked his lifelong passion seemed natural.
Heffernen drew together UI students last fall to protest the cut. The UI College of Law will now house the organization and also help provide significant funding.
Officials from the Human Rights Center for are in the process of changing the center’s dynamics to fit the now larger and more-secure budget that comes with the new home. They hope to have announced new plans at the end of the semester.
“I wasn’t hesitant,” Heffernen, a management and marketing major said. “I envision the way I want my community to be tomorrow and what actions can be taken today.”
Heffernen’s efforts earned him the award of the Phillip Hubbard Human Rights Award, presented to him at the Finkbine dinner for representative student leaders Tuesday evening.
Professor Greg Hamot, the director of the Center for Human Rights, wrote a letter of recommendation for Heffernen to receive the award. He said Heffernen made saving the center a priority for the UI — something that was greatly needed.
“He was very deserving [of the award],” Hamot said. “All the efforts with the group made it clear to administrators that [the center] was an important thing to keep, and they were smart in keeping it.”
Edward Miner, international studies bibliographer who also nominated Heffernen for the award, said the strides he has made regarding the center is only a taste of what is yet to come.
“I think that Zach is going to be a leader in human-rights research and training,” Miner said. “We have seen the début of someone with immense societal and informative capabilities.”
In the fall, the UI cited budgetary reasons and the center’s lack of a home in a UI college as reasons for the possible cut in funding.
Shortly after the student protests, UI Provost P. Barry Butler spoke to various colleges at the UI to negotiate a new home for the center.
The College of Law was chosen to house the center in February. The center will continue to remain in its current location in the University Capitol Center, reaching out to students on both the East and West Sides of campus.
Heffernen is excited for the College of Law to be involved, ensuring the center will have stability for years to come.
“I hope students will always stay involved, and I think they will,” he said. “People aren’t as interested in an organization if they know it is going to close.”