Degree: Political Science and French
Current location: Washington, D.C.
Year graduated: 2006
Student Organization Involvement: Michigan Pops Orchestra, the Honors Program (where I worked), Campus Band and Campus Philharmonia Orchestra, the Michigan in Washington Program, Sigma Iota Rho
KO: I work on immigration and asylum and refugee policy in the United States. That means I research how immigration laws and policies are affecting women seeking asylum or otherwise seeking protection here, especially those who are detained. That research then informs advocacy in Washington D.C. to try to improve policies affecting immigrant women and children.
KC: What has been your career timeline since you graduated from U-M until you took your current role?
KO: I began working in this field immediately after graduation. I spent my final semester at U-M interning in Washington, D.C. through the Michigan in Washington Program and was offered an interim and ultimately permanent position at the organization where I’d interned. I returned to Michigan for just one week to graduate, pack up, and say goodbye before starting as a legal assistant/program associate at Human Rights First. My job there primarily consisted of working with and supporting the organization’s pro bono program to find legal assistance for individuals seeking asylum in the United States.
I worked in that position for over two years before leaving to take a few months off to travel and then complete a Masters degree in Forced Migration Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa while on a Rotary Ambassadorial Fellowship. When I returned, I took a position with the Women’s Refugee Commission, in which I began to develop more policy advocacy skills in order to advocate for improved policies toward refugees and immigrants in the United States. My work took on a particular focus on the detention of asylum-seekers and their due process rights. I eventually returned to Human Rights First in a more senior position, and now am back at the Women’s Refugee Commission.
KC: At this point, would you ever consider going to law school?
KO: I considered it for a long time, but because I was able to get to where I am today without a law degree, I feel like I’m in the place where I’m supposed to be. That said, I’m one of what feels like only a few people I know who is doing this work who is not also a lawyer. There are many times when I wish I were, because I think lawyers have amazing superpowers, and there are specific things that they can do that sometimes I can’t do, like directly representing individuals in court or litigating rights violations. But there’s a lot that I can do, and I love doing it! My Masters degree is in a very relevant field and involved fieldwork that’s actually similar to the work I do today, in which I speak to migrants and asylum seekers, often in detention centers or near the border, to understand their experience. Regardless, unless you're really certain of what should come next, I think it’s incredibly important to gain some work experience and really speak and listen to those in the fields you’re interested in to determine which work or academic path is right for you before pursuing a graduate degree.
KC: What projects have you felt the most passionate about in your line of work?
KO: A lot of what I do involves the issue of immigration detention, the practice by which a lot of immigrants in the United States are locked up while they’re going through their immigration process. I just helped to write and publish a report based on interviews and focus groups with women who are seeking asylum in the United States that reviewed how they’re impacted by detention and what their experience with detention is like. We went to seven detention facilities for the report, and it is both powerful and devastating to hear detained individuals share what they’re going through, the obstacles and indignities our system engenders, and how U.S. policies impact them. I’ve seen around 20 or more detention centers at this point, meaning I’ve also traveled to some parts of the United States I'd likely never otherwise see. I’m hopeful that this topic continues to get a lot of attention, because it’s often a hidden issue of what’s happening in this country.
KC: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
KO: I think it’s very likely I’ll still be working on immigration/refugee-related issues. Some of what that looks like depends on how the politics of immigration continues to evolve in the United States – it’s been a challenging issue to work on at a national policy level in the current political climate. But I love what I do and that my work to advocate for change is rooted in the research we do by speaking directly to those who are at the border or in an immigration detention center, living our country’s immigration policies directly.
KC: What did you gain from your LSA degree that has influenced your career path?
KO: My LSA degree helped me in so many ways. Studying political science opened up new ways of thinking about the U.S. government and the world, and pursuing a major in French allowed me to explore creativity and was crucial especially to my first position, where I interviewed and worked with many French-speaking asylum-seekers. It’s an understatement that my courses and opportunities through LSA and U-M expanded my worldview and challenged me to think more critically about the topics I was most interested in. In addition to my coursework, studying abroad in Senegal as an undergraduate and interning at a human rights organization there, as well as the opportunity to live and intern in D.C., were both life-changing opportunities to grow and learn.
KC: What advice would you give to current students interested in pursuing a similar career path?
KO: Try to get as much experience as possible working on the issues you’re passionate about and be creative about what that looks like. If volunteering is an option for you, then volunteer or intern with an NGO or another program in the field you’re interested in; alternatively, develop skills in a different field that you can later translate to the field you’re most passionate about. Working for change at a state or local level is incredibly important and, if you want, can later be translated into working on policy at the national level. Remember that a lot of people intern and volunteer throughout college, so it’s really important to try to gain the same or similar experiences if you can. Concise, critical writing skills are also essential.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received is to stay in touch as much as you can with the people you meet along the way, including those who are your age and not just those who have been working for years. Your peers will likely turn into an extraordinary network years down the road. And finally, never hesitate to reach out to those whose fields or positions you’re interested in to learn about how they got there and what they learned on the way. This used to be so intimidating to me, but eventually I learned that the very worst that can happen is that they won’t respond or won’t have time to meet. More often, however, you’ll find yourself with an interesting conversation and one more open door.