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With jockeying by supporters and opponents of the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) heating up as a Congressional vote on its fate looms, Michele Toplitz ’05 (Wyckoff, N.J.) looks on with a perspective gained by hands-on experience.

The double major in Spanish and anthropology & sociology served an internship with the Guatemala Human Rights Commission in Washington, D.C. through the College’s William A. Kirby ’59internship endowment. Toplitz worked on the commission’s grant database and constructed an article and fact sheet on DR-CAFTA.

She says the commission sees the pact as potentially damaging to the majority of the indigenous people of Guatemala.

“Native farmers wouldn’t be able to compete with privatized cultivation, which would lead to homelessness and malnutrition, medicine prices would skyrocket because of extended patents, environmental controls would virtually disappear, and multi-national corporations would have almost unlimited power,” says Toplitz, who was invited to join Phi Beta Kappa this spring.

As part of her work on the grant database, she researched appropriate foundations and sent letters of inquiry. She also provided research for grant writing.

“For example, I gathered information on women’s reproductive health in rural Guatemala, which was then included in a grant proposal for GHRC’s Puentes de Paz (Bridges of Peace) program that offers counseling to young and old women,” Toplitz says.

While Toplitz’s post-graduation plans are not yet solidified, her experience made a major impact on her career goals.

“I’m pretty sure that I want to be part of a nonprofit that works to achieve some type of human rights — probably something pertaining to Hispanic culture and/or women’s rights. I’ve gotten a first-hand look into how extremely hard these dedicated people work for their cause, often with very little compensation. Their ethic really is inspiring,” she says.

Toplitz found that her classes at Lafayette built on what she learned with GHRC.

“I learned a lot about the indigenous cultures of Guatemala and the massive inequality that exists between these natives and the rich, powerful minority,” she says. “After taking Qualitative Methods in the anthropology and sociology department last semester, I’ve come to a better understanding of the need for cultural immersion when it comes to fully understanding a people that isn’t your own.”

In one case, the internship directly influenced her course of study. In Quantitative Methods of Sociology, Toplitz chose to do her major project based on the research question: What motivates full-time employees at social justice nonprofits?

Toplitz credits Lafayette for motivating her academic pursuits.

“I’ve really honed my Spanish skills during these four years, thanks to much encouragement and opportunities to work in and outside the classroom with my skills,” she says. “[In addition to anthropology and sociology], I’ve also taken several women’s studies courses that have really sparked my interest in feminism, something I’d love to deal with in future work.”

Toplitz conducted research on feminist themes in the works of several contemporary Spanish women authors with Michelle Geoffrion-Vinci, associate professor and assistant head of foreign languages and literatures. They collaborated through Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program, in which students conduct research with faculty while earning a stipend. The program has helped to make Lafayette a national leader in undergraduate research. Many of the more than 160 students who participate each year share their work through articles in academic journals and/or conference presentations.

She also is a member of Questioning Established Sexual Taboos.

Categorized in: Academic News