When former President Jimmy Carter spoke about the Middle East last year at UC Irvine, his words sparked something in anthropology major Hadia Hakim.

An Irvine native, Hadia’s parents and extended family were born and raised in Syria. For as long as she can remember, she spent her summers there.

“I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to frequently visit a part of the world that many people in the U.S. know little about,” she says. “Hearing about the work Carter has done in the region made me want to learn more.”

The honors student decided to put her anthropological training and interest in human rights issues to use last summer, spending three weeks in a Syrian-based Palestinian refugee camp interviewing families about life and growing up in the camp.

“As an Arab American, I’m interested in policies aimed at helping refugees and immigrants because I can relate to the people the policies affect,” she says. “I was really interested in learning how growing up in a confined, restricted space impacts identity.”

Her findings, which show how cultural connections to places and identity are kept alive over time, are part of the honors thesis she will submit before graduating in spring.

“It’s really exceptional for an undergraduate to be so interested in very complicated questions about politics and identity,” says Victoria Bernal, anthropology professor and advisor to Hakim. “She’s an incredibly determined and sophisticated student.”

Hakim currently is applying her research in international human rights as one of a handful of students selected for the nationwide, competitive Carter Center internship program in Atlanta, Ga. Working specifically with the human rights program, she reviews requests from individuals and groups seeking intervention from the center.

“When I first started, I read a story about a 10-year-old girl in Yemen who was forced into marriage at age 8 and is now trying to get a divorce,” she says. As a result, Hakim and others in the program are working on a proposal from the Carter Center to the president of Yemen in support of reinstating a minimum-age law for marriage. Another of her projects is helping organize the Human Rights Defenders Conference, which brings together individuals and organizations from around the world.

“The work we’re doing is really hands-on and has the potential to impact human rights and international laws on a global scale,” she says.

Her involvement on campus with the Model United Nations travel team and Mock Trial has further channeled her energy and interests. She hopes to combine her experiences with a law degree to make global impact as an international human rights and refugee attorney.

“My anthropology degree helped me learn how to engage with people, and my experiences with the Carter Center and spending time abroad have helped me gain an international humanitarian perspective,” she says. “Working as an attorney will tie it all together by allowing me to apply law around the world.”

Sheila O’Rourke, an anthropology lecturer and mentor to Hakim, has no doubt that she will succeed in her goal. “Hadia is a scholar of commitment and integrity.” O’Rourke said. “She’s the kind of person who will make a difference in this world at a time when our global community is facing profound challenges.”