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Meet the graduates: Kate Akkaya

Kate Akkaya, L'17, poses for a portrait. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University
“Human rights and social justice law are unique in that with every case you work on, you’re also looking toward a broader goal of making a fairer, equal, and more just system for everyone,” says Kate Akkaya, who will graduate this week from the School of Law. The future lawyer, who did a co-op in Turkey working with asylum-seekers, says the experience further cemented her dedication to humanitarian law. “It’s not just about helping your client,” she says. “It’s about the bigger picture.”

You did a co-op in Turkey related to refugee rights. What did you do there, and what did you take away from it?

Last spring and summer, I worked at Refugee Rights Turkey, a pro bono law firm based in Istanbul that works exclusively with refugees and asylum seekers. I was there during the aftermath of the Turkey-European Union refugee deal, which meant many asylum-seekers who had planned to move through Turkey to Europe were effectively stuck, and the Turkish and United Nations’ refugee processing systems were completely overwhelmed.

My work varied widely from day to day. For the most part, I connected refugees with social services; registered people who had been denied asylum into our client database; conducted research on refugee-related legal issues in Turkey and around the world; and managed a daily barrage of phone calls, emails, and walk-ins from people in need of all kinds of help. The law firm is quite small, and made up mostly of very young lawyers who work long hours for little pay because they are deeply passionate about helping refugees access the services they need.

Working there showed me what a truly life-or-death difference lawyers can make in asylum settings. While most people think of doctors and humanitarians as making the biggest impact in helping refugees fleeing war zones, lawyers can make a crucial difference for people trying to survive after being forced to flee their homes. I was already committed to doing humanitarian work, but it was really encouraging to know that my legal training and experience could be used to help people in such an important way.

Much of your work thus far has focused on human rights-related law. What inspires you about that discipline?

Human rights and social justice law are unique in that with every case you work on, you’re also looking towards a broader goal of making a fairer, equal, and more just system for everyone. It’s not just about helping your client. It’s about the bigger picture. You don’t get involved in humanitarian or human rights law in order to make a lot of money; you do it because you’re passionate about improving people’s lives. For me, working in this field has allowed me to form relationships with some truly amazing people who are slowly but surely changing the world for the better. As a law student, these relationships have shown me what is possible when you commit yourself to public service, and inspired me to work hard to reach a similar point in my own career.

What’s next for you?

I’ll be spending my summer studying to take the bar exam in New York and doing some contract work with one of my former co-ops. As a Boren fellow, I have a federal service obligation, so I’m in midst of the rather grueling application process for jobs in the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security. I’m also planning to apply for the Foreign Service this August.

What advice do you have for incoming law students?

To incoming law students, I would say the most important thing right now is to relax and spend some time with friends and family. Law school is brutal and it will make you grow in ways that are not always easy or comfortable; it makes you change the way you analyze and the way you write, but it also changes the way you look at the world. Northeastern is very different from most law schools, because you work closely with your peers from day one and the grading system is designed to foster collaboration and community, rather than competition.

The second most important thing is to try to get a firm understanding of why you’re going to law school, and what you plan to get out of it. Once you have your mental compass set, the challenges thrown at you become a bit more manageable, because it’s all getting you closer to your goals. The first year is the hardest, but it gets easier as you go along. And in the end, it is absolutely worth it.