By Jess Dankenbring, '17

As Aisha Farooq, ’17, watched a human trafficking case unfold in court, she could hardly believe that something like that was happening in her hometown of Arlington, Va. But after her experience in Monti Datta’s Sophomore Scholars in Residence (SSIR) course Human Rights and Modern-Day Slavery, Farooq knew what signs to look for in a trafficking case.

“Taking someone’s identity away, keeping their passport, not letting them attend school, keeping them confined and away from people — those were patterns I would have noticed but I wouldn’t have connected them to being trafficking issues,” Farooq says.

The Arlington Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, where Farooq interned this summer, handles a variety of cases, from matters of guardianship to protective orders, to cases where juveniles commit crimes, to even the occasional case of human trafficking. The Bonner Center for Civic Engagement awarded Farooq a Burhans Civic Fellowship to fund her internship, while simultaneously providing her with an academic component facilitated by Datta. 

During her internship, Farooq shadowed judges George Varoutsos, ’70, and Esther Wiggins as they ruled on cases. She would spend time with them before each case, learning the details and asking how they planned to rule. “There were times when they would tell me something, and then they’d hear the rest of the case unfold and they would sway the other way,” she says. “I would talk with them about why they changed, and it was interesting to hear their thought process. Switching between their courts, I could see how they handle cases differently and the advice that they give.”

Beyond the courtroom, Farooq also had the opportunity to visit a jail for adults, a juvenile detention center, and two group homes, as well as accompany a Guardian Ad Litem on a site visit. “It was interesting [to see] how she eases the kid into a place of comfort and then draws information out,” she says.

But the human trafficking case still stands out among her summer experiences. Through site visits with Datta and her SSIR classmates, she had heard adult victims’ stories of trafficking. In this case, though, Farooq was surprised by some of the details: the victim was a child and the case took place in an affluent area.

She was able to follow the case from multiple angles, noting the involvement of various government agencies, like the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department. “That was another interesting view, to see how many agencies can get involved when it comes to trafficking,” Farooq says.

Farooq feels that her SSIR experience didn’t just help connect her with her summer internship, but it also shaped her path at Richmond. The SSIR led her to the internship and made her realize that majors in PPEL and Healthcare Studies were the right fit. “I remember some advice Dr. Datta gave us, ‘Just study what you like. Don’t worry about majoring in this or that.’ I think I really took that to heart and sat down and thought about what I was studying and why I chose to study that,” Farooq says. “I wouldn’t have found out about human trafficking or have any idea what it was if it weren’t for his SSIR. That experience led me to do the internship I did and make the connections I did. So he’s had a really big hand in shaping my college experience.”

Datta hopes that all of his students can take away an experience similar to Farooq and use what they learn here are the University of Richmond to change the world for the better.

“In a lot of ways, last summer might have been a life-changing experience for Aisha,” Datta says. “I think it’s not life-changing in that it pushed her in a direction but it revealed more of what her true life path is, which is about helping others who are vulnerable, who need protection, and who are still not very empowered in the United States today, mainly these people who are bought and sold.”