Afia Kwakwa: The Drive to Create a Better World

Afia Kwakwa is a student in the joint JD/LL.M. programme between Columbia Law School and Sciences Po Law School. She was recently selected by the International Court of Justice to participate in the 2020-21 Judicial Fellow programme. Interview on her brilliant journey so far and her drive to make impactful change in the world.

You were recently selected by the International Court of Justice to participate in their Judicial Fellow programme for 2020-21, congratulations on this achievement! Can you tell us a bit about this programme?

Afia Kwakwa: The International Court of Justice (ICJ) Judicial Fellows Programme, established in 1999, enables recent law school graduates to gain experience at the ICJ. The programme takes place at the ICJ in the Hague, the Netherlands. Fellows have the opportunity to further enhance their understanding of international law by working under the direct supervision of one of the Judges at the ICJ. Tasks may include research, drafting documents, and preparing case files.

Interested students apply for this programme through their respective law schools—in my case, I applied through Columbia Law School. The nominating school submits nominees to the ICJ for consideration, and the Judges of the Court make the final decision on participation. Nominating universities are responsible for providing a stipend for the Fellow in order to cover travel, insurance, board and housing costs. At Columbia, the programme is open to graduating law students as well as recent alumni, who have graduated within the last three years.

You have been pursuing a JD/LL.M. at Columbia Law School and Sciences Po Law School; what has been your experience at the two universities?

AK: My experiences at the two universities have been very different due to both the nature of the legal systems and the nature of specialization of the degrees. At Columbia, I was pursuing a U.S. legal degree. This meant that my studies were more general and many of my classes were large in size. Columbia also presented me with a lot of opportunities to pursue activities and interests outside of my courses. Through Columbia, I became involved in the European Union Moot Court, conducted research on case law at the World Trade Organization, participated in the Mediation Clinic, and served on the board of the Journal of Transnational Law. At Sciences Po, my degree is specialized. The LL.M. in Transnational Arbitration and Dispute Settlement lends itself to a smaller class setting and courses which are more specific to my future career plans. 

While Columbia gave me an incredible introduction to analyzing case law and U.S. jurisprudence, the LL.M. provided opportunity for practical application of case law and an in-depth study of international jurisprudence. Overall, the dual-degree programme was extremely suited to my needs and legal goals, so I am grateful for the divergent experiences the two schools gave me—and equally grateful for the incredible friends I made at both institutions!

What made you want to study law? Are you gearing towards a specialty?

AK: I have continued to be interested and engaged in culturally competent learning. Growing up in Switzerland with an African background exposed me to multiple languages and legal systems at a young age. During my time at Brown University, I used my passion for international work to leverage my impact on the surrounding community. This passion manifested itself through my volunteer work in Providence with newly migrated families, as well as in my senior thesis, which focused on some of the academic barriers faced by English Language Learners in Providence public schools. Studying public policy was naturally integrated with international issues and cultural competency.

Prior to law school, I worked as a high school mathematics teacher in Mississippi. During my time teaching, I recognized my drive to create a better world. I also recognized the need to acquire the tools through which I could implement this change in a more impactful way than I already had — through the law. I therefore applied to law school with a passion for international work and a strong desire to effect change.

My passion for international matters has shaped my law school path. I am specializing in International Dispute Settlement as a result of my LL.M. at Sciences Po and my Summer Associate experience at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Maegher & Flom LL.P., a New York-based international law firm. In an era of increasing globalization, the expansion of cross-border transactions has led business and institutions to reconsider the best means to resolve international disputes. I believe that this concentration will allow me to work in a field that is constantly analyzing diverging legal systems and continuously engaging in complex international issues.

You spent two years teaching in Mississippi after graduating. How did this affect your learning, or your future career plans?

AK: Moving to Mississippi shaped a lot of my decisions in law school. Despite its wonderful hospitality, Mississippi is a state where racism has driven policy decisions and teachers are not representative of their students’ backgrounds. My identity played an important role in the impact I had on my students’ lives. With societal expectations of failure projected onto my students, I often approached teaching mathematics as an empowerment tool for eventual economic capital.

I certainly believe that my diverse background, coupled with my understanding of barriers to economic and social mobility, helped me to become the teacher that my students needed, and have shown me the ways in which I can use my identity to help create transformational change in the world around me.

Having had such a myriad of experiences has also helped me to recognize the privileges that I possess in my various communities. Most importantly, these experiences have shown me that as a Black African-European-American student, I have had the unique opportunity of connecting with different groups of people that identify across divergent cultural customs and varying linguistic aptitudes. In my capacity as a law student, I tried to use opportunities to connect with people from many backgrounds, with different identities. As a law graduate, I would hope that Mississippi helped to foster both the determination and the experience needed to represent the underrepresented.

You also worked for the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration and translated for the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Columbia. What has been the most significant thing you’ve learnt from these experiences?

AK: Working at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) was a very rewarding experience. Interning with the Office of the Director-General, I was able to contribute to statistical analyses regarding the effect of open-visa regimes on intra-regional trade. I also helped to plan and execute projects in sub-Saharan Africa; most notably, the 2017 Pan African Forum in Kampala, Uganda. The internship gave me a lot of freedom and independence in the execution of my duties, which I greatly appreciated. 

Translating for Columbia’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic was an incredible opportunity to both understand the asylum process in the United States and work on legal documents in multiple languages.  Translating for the clinic enabled me to strengthen my analytical skills and refine my legal writing and research in both English and French. But the most significant thing I learnt from this experience was how language can be a huge barrier to basic human rights. Working with French-speaking clients who migrated to the United States taught me a lot about how difficult it can be to navigate the American entry process. Providing help to navigate that process gave me a sense of purpose and drive throughout my studies at Columbia and allowed me to remain closely engaged with client-facing work—much of which came from my continent!

Who are your role models? Do you have any role models in the legal field?

AK: My parents have always been my biggest role models. Their experiences helped them to understand the cultural, economic, and social capital gained through institutionalized education. They came from humble backgrounds and worked tirelessly to ensure that we were given great opportunities from a young age. Most notably, they always prioritized education in our household, instilling academic ambition in my three brothers and me.

My father has been especially impactful as a role model in the legal field. He is an international lawyer as well as a legal educator, and my admiration for him greatly shaped my decision to go to law school. In addition to his primary obligations, he has continuously provided guidance and assistance to his students and interns in the legal field. These are characteristics that make my father a great legal mentor and role model, and these are traits I hope to emulate in the future.

What are your plans for the future?

AK: Following my Fellowship at the ICJ, I plan to return to Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom (where I did my summer associateship) to work as an associate in their International Arbitration and Litigation group. Aside from my immediate career plans, I continue to be involved in teaching and mentoring opportunities. I hope that, in the long term, these opportunities enable me to become more involved with the education landscape in Ghana.

Interview by the Sciences Po Editorial Team.

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