In 2017, Kifaya Ibrahim spent three months in Washington DC working at the Attorney General’s office. During this time, she learnt to manoeuvre around the subways, read maps and make a quick shift from the Kenyan Law she was accustomed to, to working with the American Law. This experience has come in handy in the last few weeks and helped her hit the ground running as she embarks on the LLM programme at the private Ivy League University, Columbia, in New York. She and other foreign students landed in the Big Apple a month early to take foundation courses in American Law, and in graduate Legal Research and Writing.
Her experience at Strathmore Law Clinic nudged her towards human rights and humanitarian law. In her short career, after graduation in 2017, she went on work for Ahmednasir, Abdikadir & Company Advocates, International Development Law Organization, and Human Rights Watch – intense experiences that cemented her passion in human rights.
In 2020, as the world came to terms with the pandemic, the idea of pursuing a master’s degree came to mind. With her experience, it was easy for her to settle on an area of specialization. She will now spend the next 9 months mastering the art in social justice and human rights.
You’re only a month into the programme but how has your experience been so far?
It’s been extremely incredible. The study programme is intense, hectic and challenging but when you are being taught by experts in the field that you enjoy then you don’t really feel the strain and you end up enjoying the experience.
The good thing is that at the moment, we are only international students embracing a new experience so it’s easy to interact and to bond. I keep ticking off countries I’ve “met”places that I might never get a chance to visit. Where else would I meet over 100 nationalities in one space? Africa is still under represented though as we are only around 10 of us, with four being Kenyans.
What area of Law interests you the most?
While at Strathmore, I first interacted with human rights while working with the Strathmore Law Clinic and carrying out research projects with various human rights organizations. Later after my pupillage, I worked for IDLO and most recently, Human Rights Watch. Interacting with these organizations further solidified my passion for human rights.
Did you enjoy your time in Strathmore?
We had a lot of exposure in terms of both the classes we took and also conferences, seminars, workshops organized by the school where we would interact with experts in their field and build networks. This has gone a long way in shaping my career. I met my professional mentor, who I’ve known for over six years now, while in Strathmore.
What’s the graduate programme application process like?
Applications for the US are done through the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) that acts as the liaison between the schools and applicants. The process in the UK is different as applicants apply directly to their school of choice.
In the application process, I reached out to the Financial Aid Office (FAO) through the Manager, Kevin Muchemi. He assisted in submitting my transcripts to LSAC and made sure the FAO office took care of the delivery costs required.
Working with the Finance office also saved me time and money as I did not have to sit for the TOEFL test that’s a requirement in the enrolment process. Schools will grant a waiver to applicants if they come from a country that predominantly speaks English and undergraduate studies were conducted in English. FAO wrote a waiver letter that exempted me from the test. I’m not sure many people are aware of this!
Was this the only school you applied to?
In the US, yes it was. The other universities I applied to were all in the UK. A struggle I had initially was trying to decide whether I wanted to do a general LLM or pick a Master’s program specializing on Human Rights. This is why my applications were geared more towards the UK as they offer more specialized Masters than the Ivy League schools in the US. However, I was particularly drawn to Columbia University as it has a very strong and unique human rights programme and a devoted Human Rights Institute where students can work to gain more experience.
What advice would you give to anyone thinking of applying to an Ivy League institution?
Shoot your shot. One of the reasons why at first I didn’t apply to these schools is that I thought they would probably not pick me. Yet we all have something they are looking for. Just remember that the application process takes time so start early. I didn’t know this, I thought it would be a relatively easy process! The process of writing the personal statement alone took me two months. I had to write, rewrite it, and have someone else look at it.
Select referees who know you well and can vouch for you. Alert them in good time; don’t bombard them at the last minute. Both my academic and professional references were very helpful and submitted them in a timely manner.
How would you like to use your experience to make an impact in the world?
When studying in law school, you’re far removed from the reality of the people you aim to serve so being actively involved in practical legal work from the onset gave me the opportunity to witness firsthand the gap between theoretical law and actual practice which made me more conscious of the flaws of the legal system in Kenya.
My passion is working at the intersection of human rights, international law, the rule of law and policy making. One of the classes I am currently taking is Law, Power & Social Change which is an externship where we analyze the role lawyers have in formulating policies and I’d like to use this to ensure the rule of law overcomes the neglect of human rights.
Will you come back immediately?
I’m open to anything at the moment. I am looking for a job in line with my career objectives and where I can continue to grow professionally. I am not just focusing my job applications in the US or Kenya- I am spreading my net wide to other countries. Let’s see where luck takes me!
This article was written by Wambui Gachari.
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