The Heller School for Social Policy and Management

First dual Heller and UPEACE graduate is ready to tackle human rights abuses around the world

Kyla Graves

Kyla Graves, MA COEX/ILHR’19, is committed to fighting global human rights abuses—and as the first graduate of a continent-spanning dual degree program at Heller, she’s uniquely qualified to do so.

“I wanted to understand how human rights interplays with conflict and conflict resolution,” Graves says. “Sometimes conflict resolution and human rights are put at odds with one another, based on what the parties want. So how do you make sure both happen?” 

That’s what drew her to Heller’s MA in Conflict Resolution and Coexistence program, which offers a dual MA degree in International Law and Human Rights from the University of Peace in Costa Rica. Students spend their first year in residence at the Heller School, then the second year at the UPEACE campus in San José. 

“My plan initially was to go into social work and help kids in the foster care system,” she says. “But as I started learning more about social problems in a global context, I was driven to support children—and as I learned more, their parents and communities—through trauma all over the world.”

Her first year at Heller offered her a grounding in peacebuilding and conflict resolution, as well as an introduction to humanitarian law. Then, at UPEACE, she took a deeper dive into the laws and treaties that govern those conflicts.

Living abroad for the first time, Graves had to adjust to a new climate—a hurricane hit during her first month and knocked out their running water—as well as a new curriculum. Rather than taking several courses over a semester, she took one class for several weeks, then moved on to the next class. But what remained the same was the sense of community.

“I’ve made very good connections through both Heller and UPEACE. You meet such genuinely wonderful people who have a similar mindset of mutual support, from all over the world,” she says.

It was through a UPEACE classmate that she found her summer internship with the Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence in Indonesia, which focuses on past violations of human rights committed by the Indonesian government.

“During the peacebuilding process, human rights need to be addressed or there will be collective, multi-generational trauma,” says Graves, who researched potential avenues for transitional justice during her internship, then turned her work into her master’s paper.

The curricula of the two programs connected in other ways: For example, the full-day simulated society exercise she did as a first-year student with COEX prepared her for a week-long conflict zone field training she did at UPEACE. The exercise took them into the woods to learn how to count footsteps during a kidnapping and barricaded them in a building to simulate a siege. Throughout all that, Graves used her mediation skills to maintain harmony between various groups of students involved.

She highly recommends the dual degree program, through which she also earned two certificates: one in international humanitarian law from the International Committee for the Red Cross, and another in international refugee law from UNHCR, the UN’s Refugee Agency.

“Whether your focus is human rights or conflict resolution, being able to analyze treaties and understand the pitfalls and mechanisms of the international law system will help you in your practice,” she says.

Kyla Graves with one of her UPEACE classes in Costa Rica.