Alumni Perspectives

“When people ask me about my time at HLS, I always talk about my experiences with the International Human Rights Clinic. Each of the projects I worked on was immensely interesting and helped me develop skills, knowledge, and relationships that I continue to draw on regularly. Perhaps the most memorable moment of my time at HLS occurred during a Clinic fact-finding trip to a refugee camp on the Thai-Burmese border. I read the news a lot as well as a good amount of human rights reports and similar accounts of horrendous things that people do to other people. But those stories take on a different type of meaning when you hear them directly from a person sitting across from you, looking into your eyes, trusting you, and having a sometimes multi-day conversation with you about his or her own life. On that trip, I learned a ton–about how to ask better questions, how to listen better, and how to work with translators–but the thing that I could never have begun to learn in any classroom was the human connection with the people I conversed with as well as their emotional experiences that are so hard to capture in written words and that are often removed from legal writing. That experience with the Clinic has helped me continue to pursue opportunities where I can work directly with those people I hope to assist through advice, advocacy, or training.”

– Jason Gelbort, JD ’13, Satter Fellow, Public International Law & Policy Group, Myanmar

“Working as a clinical student with the IHRC defined, in large part, my experience as a law student at Harvard. Whether I was camped out in the clinical office writing merits briefs to be filed in the Eleventh Circuit or conducting field interviews in South Africa for an Alien Tort Statute case, my projects, peers, and instructors at the clinic gave meaning and life to my legal studies. The clinic not only prepared me for, but also facilitated, my transition from clinical student to fulltime human rights lawyer with one of the clinic’s partner organizations, EarthRights International (ERI). Today, I am working with ERI to assist indigenous communities affected by U.S. oil companies in the Peruvian Amazon, and not a day goes by when I am not drawing upon skills, lessons, or contacts that I established while in the clinic. I have never before felt so wholly prepared to undertake my work as I do now. The IHRC clinic is without parallel in this regard.”

-Marissa Vahlsing, JD ’12, Staff attorney, EarthRights International

“From my first project as a volunteer Advocate through the four semesters I worked as a clinical student, the International Human Rights Clinic was my community at the law school. I had the chance to work on lawsuits against giant multinational communities, to travel to two continents to meet with affected communities, and to support efforts to achieve accountability for torture committed by my own government. As my skills and experience developed, I was given the chance to take on new responsibilities and learn new strategies. In the process, I made strong and lasting connections with some of my closest friends and most inspiring mentors. Through the clinical seminars and workshops, working on projects, and particularly through the collaboration with my fellow students and the clinical faculty, I received the theoretical and practical training that defined my legal education and prepared me for a career in human rights.”

– Ben Hoffman, JD ’12, Fellow, Human Rights Clinic, Columbia University School of Law

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