Meet Refugee Advocate: Evan Rathjen

Meet Evan Rathjen




HC: Hello, Evan! How did you end up at UT, and how did you select your majors?


    I’m from Oklahoma City, so around time I was twelve, I wanted to get out of Oklahoma. I applied to nine schools, and eventually I narrowed them down to three. I had visited UT before and felt at home on campus. I loved Austin, loved talking to the students, and I loved that the Liberal Arts Honors advisor emphasized personal success along with academic merit.

    I started as an English major and declared history as my double major in my second year. Actually, I listed both English and chemistry on my college apps because I enjoyed my high school chemistry classes and thought liked the idea of being a woman in STEM. But as I thought about what I really liked to do, I realized I wanted to study English. I knew that whatever career option I would pursue, I wanted to be enjoying my profession and helping people.


HC: What do you love?


    I love people. Wherever I go, I love talking to people because I love hearing their stories.


HC: Can you tell me about your involvement with the Liberal Arts Refugee Alliance?


    Freshman year, I wasn’t really involved with anything; I was pretty lonely because I focused on academia instead of getting to know people. At the end of the year, I felt like I was taking so much from UT and wasn’t giving anything back, so I talked to one of my friends, and she invited me to LARA. I had done distant service projects in high school, like sending care packages and running food drives, but I didn’t get to see how it was benefitting communities. LARA is really hands-on and fun, so I decided to join. I began doing service projects regularly, getting to know the other members, for about a year before they announced that they were doing exec applications. One of my friends encouraged me to apply for director, so I applied and ended up leading LARA this year.


HC: What do you think UT students should know about the refugee situation in Austin?


    I want to preface this by mentioning that LARA is open to everyone: though we’re called the Liberal Arts Refugee Alliance, anyone can join. We also extend our personal definition of “refugee” to serve many more people in the Austin community; we work with undocumented people, asylum seekers, and immigrants along with refugees.

    I’d like to let people know that they’re here; before I was involved in LARA, I hadn’t met a refugee. I didn’t realize that there were student, faculty, and staff refugees here on campus and actively contributing to the Austin community. A lot of people may be concerned about working with them because of they feel like they’re privileged and can’t relate, but refugees aren’t passive objects of pity or sorrow. Their diversity is immeasurable — most refugees have college degrees, and we can all find something to talk about. We’re all humans.

Service isn’t a one-way relationship: it’s reciprocal. One of our volunteering opportunities is gardening. When I signed up, I thought I knew about gardening. I show up to the first day wearing casual clothes, and the coordinator says, “We’re going to hoe.” I have no clue how to hoe. We go into the garden and realize we don’t even know how to pull weeds right. They taught us that there’s so much more to gardening: knowing when plants are in season, how to plant them, what to make with them, and how people of different nationalities prepare them differently.


HC: If you could go anywhere with any person, living or dead, where would you go and with whom?


I would go to a coffee shop and talk to Kendrick Lamar about his new album.


HC: If you could pick one song to describe yourself, which would it be?


I’m a diehard Bob Dylan fan — my dad played him all the time when I was little — so I would probably choose “A Simple Twist of Fate.” Actually, I took an English course on him, and we analyzed his songs as literature.


HC: What do you want your legacy to be at UT after you graduate?


    I think people have this idea that leaders on campus made it into their positions because they’re the best at what they do, but I want to be an advocate for those who stumble into positions. I’m not pretending that things are easy; leading is a lot of work. But things like my cat and a good cup of coffee are just as valid.

I think that no one really acknowledges how hard it is to be a student, constant toll on your mental and physical health. Making it through school is such an achievement that isn’t recognized as much as it should be. Enjoying life, learning from my experiences, seeing everything that happens as part of life’s story — they’re all so important too.


HC: What are your goals for the next five years?


    I want to be happy: to keep doing what I’m doing now, but even better and greater, always striving for more. To get better at Chinese and to travel more. I’m going to Shanghai in the summer, and then in December I’m going to Paris and Berlin.


HC: What are some of your favorite things to do or places to eat around Austin?


I like going to Growler USA, — it has these big, garage-door like windows. I know all the bartenders there, and they’re really fun to talk to. I like going out to Bull Creek, too. On Friday and Saturday nights during the summer, people swim in the creek, play music and have cookouts. You see a lot of people and families from all around of Austin. I also like going to listen to music at places like the co-op on West Campus or at downtown venues like Sidewinder.


HC: What is one of your favorite books?


    South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami.


HC: Who inspires you?


    My friends: they’re all doing really different things, but they’re all really into what they’re doing. Seeing their passion is infectious.


HC: What’s your go-to fun fact about yourself?


    I always tell people I was a test-tube baby because I was conceived through in-vitro fertilization. My friends and I have this running joke that I’m a robot.