Refugee Advocate Irene Soteriou Named 2021 UConn Newman Civic Fellow

Irene Soteriou ’23 (CLAS) was nominated by UConn President Thomas Katsouleas for her investment in collaborative changemaking.

Irene Soteriou UConn CLAS Newman Civic Fellow

Irene Soteriou '23 (CLAS) is UConn's 2021-22 Newman Civic Fellow. Photo courtesy of Irene Soteriou.

Irene Soteriou, ’23 (CLAS), a cognitive science and statistics double major at the University of Connecticut, has been honored with The Newman Civic Fellows Award for her leadership and investment in her community.  

The Newman Civic Fellows Award, sponsored by Campus Compact, honors college student leaders who have demonstrated an investment in finding solutions for challenges facing communities throughout the country. All candidates for the award must be nominated by their school’s president or chancellor. 

“A staunch advocate for refugees and asylum seekers, Irene has worked extensively to empower survivors of armed conflict and construct institutions that prevent its perpetuation,” UConn President Thomas Katsouleas said on the fellowship website. “In addition to her work at Genocide Watch, where she has pursued impactful structural change, Irene is currently interning for the US Department of State and volunteering as an English tutor for refugees through Paper Airplanes.” 

“It still feels so surreal to be receiving this honor—all I can say is that I am deeply grateful, both to my mentors for their support and to my parents for raising me with the set of values and sense of community that has organically driven everything I’ve sought to do,” Soteriou said.  

“I’m looking forward to learning and growing from this amazing cohort, and I hope to come out of this year a more self-aware, inspired, and socially competent person.” 

The Newman Civic Fellowship provides a one-year learning, networking, and skill-building experience for the students. It includes a national conference, monthly virtual event series, a local mentor, and access to scholarship and fellowship opportunities. 

Growing up among refugees was where Soteriou’s “appreciation for collaborative changemaking originated,” she wrote in her personal statement. “I found it impressive that even very small communities like my own, divided by international conflict, could make such powerful strides towards rebuilding when doing so collectively.” 

My family comes from a very small, beautiful country called Cyprus, a country that has been divided for the last 47 years,” Soteriou said. “My family and nearly everyone they knew became refugees during the initial invasion, and to this day, we are still unable to return and live freely in our homes. Growing up under the shadow of these events, I remember often feeling extremely frustrated with the injustice of it all, and that frustration was compounded by a sense of helplessness. 

Through her work at Genocide Watch, an organization that exists to prevent and punish forms of mass murder, Soteriou has contributed to the passage of legislation for mandated genocide education in U.S. secondary schools, the community-grounded implementation of the Global Fragility Act, and the development of an early warning network to alert governments, relief and health workers, and journalists to genocidal processes. 

“Community defines nearly everything that I do because, especially coming from such a small and often overlooked community, I recognize that I hold a tremendous degree of privilege in being able to attend a University like UConn and access the wealth of resources that I do to learn and grow,” she said.  

As a student, Soteriou has founded the annual UConn Human Rights Symposium, serves as Deputy Speaker of the Undergraduate Student Government, and works at the Center for Career Development, where she lean effort to help non-native English speakers, formerly incarcerated individuals, and others from historically underserved or marginalized communities better prepare for employment opportunities. She formed the Student Coalition for Human Rights to facilitate collaboration among human rights groups on campus, and is bringing together student groups from universities across the state to advocate collectively for refugees during the pandemic.  

“I’d like to give a special thank you to Dr. [Bradley] Wright, professor of sociology, whose work has inspired me to pursue deeper reflection, introspection, and growth, especially within the context of my identity,” Soteriou said. “I’d also like to thank Kristen Soprano, a career consultant in the Center for Career Development, who has challenged me to step outside of my comfort zone, and who has supported me through obstacles I’ve faced. 

Following graduation, Irene plans to study international law in hopes of having a more permanent impact on displaced communities through legal reform.