Mastering law to serve the global good

By A. Kenyatta Greer | Emory Lawyer | Sept. 28, 2015

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Law student Tsering Choedon, an India-born Tibetan, is using an Emory Law education and her own life experiences to further the cause of stateless people.

She has never been to Tibet, yet she considers herself wholly Tibetan. Her heart and her history are tethered to the country that her grandparents fled in late 1959. They escaped during the Tibetan Uprising against China, walking over snow-covered mountains to reach India, where they would raise their daughter — and where that daughter would raise hers.

Tsering Choedon 15L may be an Indian citizen by the spirit of the law but not by the letter. Many nationals consider her a foreigner living in India. Choedon was born and raised in a Tibetan settlement in Southern India. When she was 15, she moved to Delhi and then Dharamsala. She later spent five years completing her legal education in India, a process that included basic education as well as sociopolitical training, not unlike what it would be like to attend college and law school  all at once in the United States.

After her schooling, Choedon worked as a licensed advocate practitioner for three years, where she found her interest in human rights law growing into a passion. She knew, though, that with her current education and citizenship, practicing law in India could limit her; she would have to become an Indian citizen to enjoy all of the privileges awarded to legal practitioners there. She was stateless and at a standstill.

Choedon wanted to understand the experiences of people like her — people without a home. Her curiosity led her to the Tibet Fund, a US Department of State project that helps cover the expenses required to bring students from India, Nepal, and Bhutan to colleges and universities in the United States, where most enroll  in two-year master’s programs. Since 1988, the Tibet Fund has helped 414 Tibetan students come to the US to study. “The Tibet Fund is a well-known and competitive program back home,” Choedon recalls. Tibet Fund students choose from 26 different disciplines — including international law. Choedon applied and was accepted  to attend Emory Law as a student in the Master of Laws (LLM) program with a concentration in human rights law.

An LLM from Emory Law

Choedon says she chose Emory because of the thriving Tibetan community, augmented by His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama’s stint as a visiting professor. She was coming from a small, close-knit Tibetan community, and she was unwilling to sacrifice that experience, even as she traveled some 8,500 miles away from home.

“Of course the programs at Emory are attractive and professional,” Choedon says, “but I got to know about the China/Tibet initiatives at Emory and found a platform through which I could communicate with other students and find commonalities with them as humans. That made Emory feel like more than a great school. It felt like Emory could be an extension of home.”

The Emory experience also has helped her develop her passion. Choedon says she has always had a “heart for human rights,” because she grew up hearing stories about the country back home — the home she has never seen. Her father, whom she has dubbed “the most educated illiterate person I have ever come across,” taught her about her history, even when he had no recollection of his own family. He taught her to reflect  on and seek to understand injustice, and she developed  a desire to fight it, too.

However, her scope has expanded since she has been at Emory, she says. “I have a bigger vision than I had before. Pain is universal. Knowing you have no place to call home is not limited to one community. It is not just about my community.”

Choedon has made friends from Jamaica, South Korea, and Somalia — all people who have had work experience like her but who are seeking a better understanding of the law and how it is created and enforced across the globe. She says that these relationships are just as much a part of her education as are her classes; the way the classes are approached is an education in itself.

“It is different here than back home, partly because of the professors. At home, it is mainly about getting a high score. Here, teachers recognize your determination and support you beyond their responsibility. I am very interested in laws pertaining to stateless people. Professor Polly Price 86C 86G helped me connect with people in the field just based on my coming to her office and showing interest.”

More learning to do

Opportunities through the Emory-Tibet Partnership and support from professors like Price and Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law, have prompted Choedon to extend her program. Her initial plan was to go back to her legal practice. Now she wants to “go to the depths of human rights law.” She hopes to earn a doctor in juridical science degree (SJD) to help with that quest.

Choedon has been moved by the compassion of visitors to the school as well. When Ben Ferencz, the last surviving prosecutor from the Nuremberg Trials, visited the law school in January 2015, Choedon made some personal decisions. “I listened to him and thought that what he said was idealistic but not impossible. It was a push. We are the new generation. We cannot sit back and think that someone else will do this. Individuals can make a difference, and I will find a way to do my bit.

“Hope is my main inspiration. I want to help ease suffering and provide justice for people who are lost. Sometimes we forget how easy it is to reach out to others if we just see each other as humans and ignore everything else.”

For more information on the Emory LLM program, visit law.emory.edu/llm.

For information on Tibet Fund scholarships, visit tibetfund.org/prog_education.html.