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Fern Holland Award

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Fern Holland's Story


Fern L. Holland, 1970-2004
University of Oklahoma, 1992

Fern Holland died on March 9th, 2004 while working for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. She was killed by forces violently opposed to the ideals of freedom and democracy for the Iraqi people. Fern, an Oklahoma native who grew up believing that one person could make a difference in the world, knew that her work placed her at extreme risk. It was a risk she was willing to assume in order to bring some measure of hope and equality to the people of Iraq. She was convinced that through simple acts of human kindness and understanding, it is possible to make the world a better place in which to live.

Fern’s work and sacrifice on behalf of others did not begin in Iraq. It began long before in the children’s hospitals of Russia and South Africa where she worked as a volunteer following her graduation from the University of Oklahoma. Upon her return to the United States, she entered law school at the University of Tulsa, graduating with honors in 1996. In 1999, having demonstrated exceptional ability as a lawyer, she left a lucrative position with her law firm to enter the Peace Corps. She chose as her assignment the country of Namibia in her beloved Africa. Here she helped to build schools and bring AIDS education to the most isolated areas of this southwest African nation. In 2002, she traveled to the African nation of Guinea on behalf of the American Refugee Committee. There, she implemented solutions for dealing with widespread human rights abuses then occurring in Guinean refugee camps.

In July, 2003, Fern was hired by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to investigate human rights abuses under the Sadaam Hussein regime. She was part of that agency’s Abuse Prevention Unit whose purpose is to protect victims of abuse occurring during times of war or conflict. At the conclusion of her tour with USAID, she was retained by the Coalition Provisional Authority to help Iraqis establish a democratic form of government. In this capacity, her efforts began to center around the new role of Iraqi women in a culture in which they had historically been denied meaningful participation.

Working tirelessly on behalf of women’s rights, Fern established and implemented the concept of women’s centers to which Iraqi women could come to learn about democracy and the role envisioned for them in a representative form of government. She was instrumental in securing equality and participation for women in the Iraqi interim constitution. And always, she stood as a friend to anyone in need of help. It was because of her work on behalf of the Iraqi people that Fern was targeted for assassination. On March 9th, 2004, on the road between Karbala and Al Hillah, Fern, her friend and Iraqi counterpart, Salwa Ali Oushami, and CPA press liaison Robert Zangas were murdered by elements of an extremist group whose members view the ideals of democracy and equal opportunity as a threat. She was the first civilian to die in Iraq.

Fern is mourned by all those whose lives she touched. In towns and villages thousands of miles from her home, she will be remembered as one who brought light where there had been only darkness, and hope to people who had known only despair. The need and suffering which drew her to those far away places still exists. The Fern L. Holland Charitable Foundation was founded to continue the work which she so selflessly undertook and for which she gave her life.

While Fern’s accomplishments are indeed extraordinary, she was a successful, yet normal college student of the late 1980s and early 1990s. She was an outstanding leader, serving as Rush Chair for Delta Gamma and Secretary for the Panhellenic Association. She served the University as a volunteer for the student counseling hotline. She was also an athlete, running daily and playing every sorority intramural game she could. Happy hour at Classic 50s was a common visit for Fern, to get just one more strawberry slush! The evenings would frequently find Fern at Brother’s, listening to acoustic guitar groups (her favorite was Wakeland). In her free time, Fern doodled, journaled, and read philosophy.

Fern has been honored in numerous ways by many colleagues and was named as the Person of the Week on ABC World News Tonight on March 12, 2004. She was selected as the Oklahoman of the Year by Oklahoma Today Magazine and the OU Alumni Club from Tulsa has also named a scholarship in her honor. The Fern L. Holland Award is being sponsored by the University of Oklahoma Division of Student Affairs and Delta Gamma Fraternity. The award will be presented at the Campus Awards Program each spring to a full-time undergraduate woman bearing the same spirit as Fern, a desire to make a difference in the world around us.


Past Recipients

Learn more about where former recipients are now


2005 - Jessica J. Hughes
2006 - Amyie Vuong
2007 - Amy Dawn Bourlon
2008 - Caitlin Frazier
2009 - Moireach McKinzey
2010 - Sara King
2011 - Dana Mohammad-Zadeh
2012 - Anna Przebinda
2013 - Alexis Taitel
2014 - Nicole DeYear
2015 - Sarah Johnson
2016 - Lucy Mahaffey

Related Articles


New York Times - September 19, 2004

Oklahoma Today - January/February 2005

Sooner Magazine - Summer 2004

Kaleidoscope Magazine - Fall 2005

New York Times Magazine - September 2004

Tulsa World - August 30, 2011

Cherokee Phoenix - July 21, 2014

Cherokee Phoenix - February 28, 2014

Tulsa Law Review - 2004

The Miami News-Record - June 2014



A Global Award honoring Fern Holland


In 2014, this was the 10th anniversary of the Fern Holland Award which has been given annually in tribute to the legacy of American lawyer and human rights activist Fern Holland, who was killed while working for women’s rights in Iraq. The award honors a leader who takes tremendous risk to promote peace and defend the human rights of a targeted or vulnerable community. This year’s recipient was Iraqi lawyer Suaad Allami. Past recipients include Nataliya Dmytruk, a leader in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, Mukhtaran Bibi, a Pakistani human rights activist, and Mariane Pearl, journalist and widow of David Pearl.