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Laura Claus '13: Shining a Light on Injustice

Laura Claus '13: Shining a Light on Injustice

On the night of April 14, 2014, the militant Islamist group Boko Haram entered the dormitories of the Government Secondary School in Chibok, Nigeria, and kidnapped the 276 female students — most of whom were between the ages of 12 and 18 — residing there. In the days following the brazen mass abduction, Boko Haram’s leadership released a video claiming responsibility, alleging that the kidnapped girls had been “liberated” by having converted to Islam, and threatening to sell them as child brides and sex slaves unless all of their militant members were freed from Nigeria’s prisons.

Like many around the world, Laura Claus ’13 was shocked, saddened and angered by the group’s deplorable act. Unlike so many others, she decided to do something about it.

“There’s a lot of social inequality in this world, and Boko Haram’s violation of basic human rights is an extreme example of that,” Claus says. “In many cases, the people who are most impacted do not have the voice to express their concerns, and therefore often fail to be recognized on national and international levels. I am dedicated to helping marginalized groups find their voice.”

Currently pursuing a PhD from Cambridge University, Claus is focusing her research on tracking social activism in developing countries, and connecting those activists with agencies such as UNICEF in order to drive social change. It’s an area of study that has led her to conduct field research in far-flung locales like Nigeria and Indonesia, and in the process, gain invaluable firsthand exposure to the difficult social issues prevalent in many parts of the world.

It’s not work for the faint of heart, as Claus quickly learned after arriving in Nigeria earlier this year to collect data for her PhD thesis. “My trip was a very difficult one, but it also was so important on so many levels,” she recalls. “In the news you read about Boko Haram, who are doing so many atrocious things. Slaughtering people – who they refer to as ‘infidels’ – for absurd reasons, and obviously the kidnapping of the girls. There’s a real sense of fear and uneasiness about what they might do next.”

During her two-week visit, Claus connected with Nigerian-based activists and organizations who shared her desire to eliminate Boko Haram’s intimidating influence on communities across the country, especially in the Northeast region where the terrorist group is most active. Despite traveling under U.N. protection, Claus couldn’t help but feel like a moving target. “I didn’t look like anyone else, and it wasn’t the kind of place you wanted to stand out, especially considering how much Boko Haram despises Westerners. ‘Boko Haram’ literately means ‘Western education is sin’ and international organizations have been a repeated target of the group.”

But the end definitely justified the means, as Claus had the opportunity to connect with dedicated civil rights activists and family members of the abducted girls, and hearing their stories confirmed that she was exactly where she needed to be. “Speaking to the families of the girls was life-changing for me,” she says. “Their resilience in the face of such a tragic event was inspiring, and definitely worth any moments of fear I felt when I was there. Remembering how I saw them fight for justice and the return of the abducted girls by arranging daily protests for over two years now still inspires me every single morning I wake up.”

Passion Meets Purpose

The seeds of Claus’ commitment to social justice were sown during her days as a standout student-athlete at USD. A triple major in psychology, finance and business administration, she also was a key contributor to the women’s tennis program, compiling an impressive overall record of 132-81 (singles and doubles) and helping lead the Toreros to a West Coast Conference title in 2013.

“Laura is just an exceptional young woman. She possesses the best of the best on and off of the tennis court,” says USD Women’s Tennis Head Coach Sherri Stephens. “She is intelligent, driven and compassionate. I would take 10 of her, and that would make me the happiest coach in the world!”

Claus earned a litany of awards for her efforts on the court and in the classroom, but it was her volunteer work with underprivileged children in a local elementary school that left the most indelible impression. “That experience really showed me how lucky I am to have the opportunities I have, and how a lot of people in this world do not. I feel a strong responsibility to support those who are less privileged.”

Before heading off to Stanford to begin a fellowship later this year, Claus is planning a fundraiser in conjunction with the USD Women’s Tennis program, with proceeds benefitting communities affected by Boko Haram’s insurgency. While providing financial support is a primary objective, so too is shining a light on the continued dangers Nigerian citizens face on an everyday basis.

“The most important thing is to keep the attention of the international community,” Claus says. “The Nigerian people need to know that we’re still here, and we’re still paying attention.”

— Mike Sauer

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