Sela Cowger ’17: Community Engagement with International Law

I recently spoke about international refugee law at a conference hosted by the United World College of the American West (UWC-USA) in Montezuma, New Mexico. UWC-USA is part of an international education organization called the United World Colleges, comprised of seventeen international high schools and national committees who select high school students from over 150 countries to attend a UWC school. The UWC schools share a common mission “to make education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.” As an alumna of the college, I was excited to return to the beautiful UWC-USA campus to share my experiences in the field of immigration and refugee policy with high school students from all over the world.

As a former English teacher in Japan, I knew that I wanted to teach about international refugee law in an engaging and informative way.  I drew inspiration from an interactive activity that Professor Ramji-Nogales used in her Refugee Law & Policy class that I took in my 2L year, which allows students to participate in international treaty-making to create a universal refugee definition. Building from this activity, I put students into small groups and asked them to negotiate with one another to reach a consensus on a universal refugee definition. Each student was given a character to play, such as a government official from a refugee-receiving country, a government official from a refugee-producing country, a refugee, or an international organization advocating for refugee rights. The students each were given specific instructions on areas of compromise and requirements for the refugee treaty.

Each group produced widely different definitions. Because almost all of the students in my workshop were from countries other than the United States, they brought with them an array of unique perspectives on refugee law. After the activity, the students reflected on the difficulty of creating a universal refugee definition that could sufficiently address the myriad reasons that drive refugees to flee their countries. One student remarked, “Why do we need a definition? We all have different experiences with refugees in our countries and every refugee experiences flight in a different way.”  This is a question that I have asked myself many times throughout my study of international refugee law.

The workshop at the UWC-USA conference taught me how beneficial it can be for law students to teach complex legal issues to non-legal audiences. After I take the bar exam in July, I will continue to build on this teaching experience by spending two weeks facilitating a course on international migration with high school students in Bulgaria. I am excited about working with youth from around the world who are engaging with migration issues in their local communities and engaging them in dialogue about ways to most effectively address immigration challenges in their local contexts.

Engaging with young people about the vital role that they play in improving legal frameworks and advancing the rights of individuals who often find themselves outside of the law is critical for the advancement of international law. These exchanges, in turn help us, as future lawyers, understand how complex legal theories, definitions, and frameworks affect societies around the world and challenge our assumptions about what we believe international law should look like. Engagement with our communities is key to ensuring that international law encompasses everyone and that definitions, like that of a “refugee,” are inclusive. Through an appreciation of the varied voices and experiences that encompass the study and practice of international law, I find great opportunity in our role as lawyers to help bridge the gap between law and society.  Although I am at the very beginning of my legal career, no matter where I go, I hope to take the time to work with local communities. Intercultural dialogue and engagement with diverse peoples of all ages and backgrounds are critical to becoming the most effective lawyers that we can be, both at home and abroad.