William Johnson ’25: Studying Abroad While Defending Democracy and Human Rights

Syracuse University recently caught up with history and social science education major William Johnson ’25. Along with Nathaniel Hasanaj ’25 (international relations), Grace Reed ’25 (broadcast and digital journalism), and Charlotte Bingham ’27 (international relations), Johnson has been studying at Syracuse Strasbourg, one of Syracuse University’s five study abroad centers. 

In November 2023, these and other students had the rare opportunity to serve as official rapporteurs at the World Forum for Democracy, sponsored by the Council of Europe. As notetakers, they reported on key discussion points at the three-day event, which was attended by representatives from more than 80 countries and focused on defending democracy and human rights.

Syracuse University—celebrating its 50th anniversary in Strasbourg—has penned a new agreement with the Council of Europe. “The new partnership is a gem of an opportunity for students and faculty alike, the first of its kind between a US institution and the Council of Europe,” says Center Director John Goodman.

William Johnson and Grace Reed sitting at a long table writing.
An aspiring social studies teacher, William Johnson ’25 (second from left) says the World Forum for Democracy exposed him to important issues affecting government and society. Grace Reed ’25 is to his left.

Tell us about the World Forum for Democracy.

Johnson: It brought together business leaders and representatives from governments, youth delegations, and non-governmental organizations to examine the state of democracy in the world. Many attendees presented initiatives designed to improve democracy and the quality of life for others.

Bingham: One presenter who stood out to me was a public policy analyst from Kenya. She talked about the People Dialogue Festival, where Kenyans from all walks of life meet to discuss governmental, social, and economic issues. That this is done against the backdrop of different cultural experiences, like food, music, and dance, is fascinating.

Hasanaj: The forum enables political decision-makers and activists to debate solutions to key democratic challenges. It’s based on the three values of the Council of Europe: democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.

What was it like serving as a rapporteur?

Johnson: As rapporteurs, we helped determine which initiative was most popular—and would receive the Council of Europe’s prestigious Democracy Innovation Award. I learned about pressing issues, like the environmental and health impacts of mining in Ghana and Serbia’s clean water crisis. As a future social studies teacher, I’m interested in how these kinds of issues affect government and society.

Reed: Each of us attended a lab group or a forum talk, where we took official notes and formed opinions about various initiatives being presented. [Reed’s lab, titled “The Art of Dialogue: Can Empathy Deliver Peace?,” featured presentations of four such initiatives.] After discussing our findings with other rapporteurs, we decided which projects should proceed to the final round.

Hasanaj: My lab was titled “Women Building Peace,” and it explored ways to make peace negotiations more inclusive. One presenter was the founder of the South Sudanese Women Intellectuals Forum, which uses social and broadcasting media to promote a free, just, and equitable society. Her presentation was not only informative and well structured, but also extremely passionate. Listening to her made me realize why women and girls in war-torn countries like South Sudan are often marginalized.

The University’s new partnership with the Council of Europe creates experiential opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students. What are your thoughts on it?

Goodman: The agreement is an outgrowth of the University’s Academic Strategic Plan, which emphasizes study abroad and student engagement with real-time public issues. It provides a dozen internships for students studying in Strasbourg. It also fosters unique research opportunities for students and faculty. It’s extremely rare and valuable for students, especially undergraduates, to work inside an organization like the Council of Europe, which represents more than 700 million people. Thanks to our 50-year presence in Strasbourg, the University has direct access to working practitioners in major international bodies.

Hasanaj: As the so-called “Capital of Europe,” Strasbourg offers many pre-professional learning opportunities and experiences. Some of the ideas I encountered at the World Forum of Democracy have broadened my perspective, something that probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise. I feel more independent and have a deeper understanding of European—especially French and German—history and culture.

Reed: Studying abroad in Strasbourg, I developed a greater sense of autonomy and resilience while advancing my future career through opportunities like the World Forum of Democracy. I now see the world—and the people in it—in a new way.

Originally published by Syracuse Stories.