Georgia State University's College of Law is home to many nontraditional law students – those who have pursued other careers prior to law school; those holding down full-time jobs and studying part time; those who have started families of their own; and those who never thought they would go to law school.
Jeff Austin, Julia Charles and Nicole Motter, three newly minted J.D.'s, belong to the latter category. Each of them came to GSU with a strong interest in international human rights and tailored their law school experiences in order to pursue their passions.
Austin, 32, worked as a fact-checker in Washington, D.C., and spent several years working for the Carter Center in Atlanta after he graduated college. One of their projects focused on the 2005 elections in Liberia that yielded Africa's first elected female head of state; Austin helped train election monitors and political groups, funded groups that did participatory education and provided general support.
Later, working for the Carter Center on a justice sector reform project in Liberia, Austin saw how the law and the courts helped keep a war-torn society stable, which prompted him to apply to law school.
"I've always been interested in international development," Austin says. "I majored in international development in undergrad, but I didn't really see the legal side of it until working with the Carter Center. ... I became inspired by the possibilities."
Once he enrolled at GSU, he continued to work for the Carter Center – in Atlanta and in the field in Guinea – while also working in GSU Law's tax clinic and doing an externship with the federal prosecutor's office. In his third year, he took off 10 days mid-semester to go and observe the elections in Guinea and completed an independent study about mining in Guinea with professor Jack Williams.
Charles, 26, also entered GSU Law with extensive international experience, and continued to accrue more. She lived in Slovenia on a Fulbright research grant right after college and in India for the six months leading up to law school. Her first summer during law school was spent working for the Ministry of Justice in Kosovo; the second summer she worked in the human rights department of the Carter Center, focusing on the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"I'm interested in transitional justice, which is kind of rebuilding justice systems after conflict," Charles says. "I've taken all the international classes that I can and just taken advantage of the things that are really appealing to me. The course in international criminal law was probably my favorite. I also took ‘human rights and the child' with Professor Todres and [did] an independent study with him."
One of the best parts of Charles' GSU education was her externship and subsequent volunteer work with the Georgia Asylum and Immigration Network (GAIN). Working with immigrants who were survivors of trafficking or domestic violence on issues of asylum and access to justice allowed her to keep working in the international realm, even when her coursework had more of a domestic focus. Now that she has graduated, she hopes to find work overseas – ideally, she says, with the International Criminal Court.
"You just really have to take the initiative," Charles says of seeking out opportunities. "It is a lot of work when you're going through millions of websites trying to find something that's legit, but in the long run you come out with some incredible experiences… and the Georgia State faculty are a hundred percent behind you."
Motter, 28, came to GSU Law from the world of nonprofits; she had been working on youth development projects with inner-city children since graduation. Law school represented an opportunity for her to broaden the scope of her work.
"I've always been interested in issues related to Africa and humanitarian issues," Motter says. "Coming to law school was my way of seeing, coming from a nonprofit background, how to do things on a larger scale."
Motter registered for all of the international law courses available to her and sought out both curricular and extracurricular opportunities for international work, with an emphasis on social justice and social enterprise. The summer after her first year, she landed an internship in South Africa that she found via Google (search term: "human rights law internship South Africa"). She later worked for two semesters with the Carter Center, primarily on Liberia and the Middle East, and also did two stints with the Pro Bono Partnership of Atlanta.
Now, she says, she is particularly interested in refugees and problems of war such as child soldiers – an issue that parallels her previous work with inner-city kids and gang culture – and looking at rule of law as a preventative mechanism.
"A lot of people come into law school and they don't really know how they want law school to work for them," Motter says. "I think there's more to law than initially meets the eye, and it's worth people exploring what their interests are in the context of law."
As evidenced by these three graduates and many others, GSU is an ideal place for law students to do just that. While GSU Law offers several study abroad programs, students also have the freedom to forge their own paths based on their interests.
"Honestly, that's the great thing about Georgia State," Austin says. "A lot of students have worked in lots of different careers, and they're finding ways to apply the law to what they know already, not just internationally. People have all kinds of different notions about the degree."
Kathleen Poe Ross