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Osato Chitou ’10 – Ready for the Next Step on Her Journey

Born in Nigeria, Osato F. Chitou, along with her mother and older brother, arrived in Brooklyn, NY in the 1980s shortly after her father had emigrated to attend graduate school. Like many immigrants, the family’s move was prompted “by the endless possibilities that the U.S. appears to offer, such as a great educational system and upward mobility.”

Osato Chitou 

 Osato Chitou ’10

Chitou’s high school years were spent at a boarding school in Connecticut. While in college, she earned extra money by tutoring students from some of the low-income, mostly minority neighborhoods around Boston. This made plain the educational advantages she enjoyed and the limited resources of so many others. After receiving her B.A. in biological anthropology, Chitou took a job teaching sixth grade at a private school in Colorado. “In my mind, preparatory school was a very Northeastern idea, so I was interested in how it was ‘done’ out West.”

The Colorado school had endless resources and its students were so eager to learn that she found the experience “too perfect and too easy – I needed to get my hands dirty.” Chitou joined AmeriCorps and was placed with the National AIDS Fund in rural North Carolina where she did HIV/AIDS testing, counseling, and education. “It was such a humbling experience,” she says, “and I look at that year as moving me a step closer to enrollment in law school.”

After Chitou’s year of service with AmeriCorps, she enrolled in graduate school to earn her Masters in Public Health. Focusing on community health education, she was able to combine “the skills learned in the classroom, along with the tenets of anthropology (it always comes down to people and culture).” For the required practicum, Chitou traveled in the spring of 2006 to the Buduburam Liberian Refugee Camp in Ghana, which housed tens of thousands of individuals displaced by the West African country’s protracted civil war. To do so, she was given a leave of absence from her full-time job as an HIV/AIDS social worker in rural North Carolina.

Chitou’s master’s thesis was an examination of the effect of female social networks on the health of refugee women, many of whom are subject to multiple resettlements. She conducted interviews with female victims of all types of violence, more specifically, sexual violence. HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections were all too common, forcing the master’s candidate to put on her social worker hat. Chitou found numerous similarities between her job back home and her practicum in Ghana. As she tells it, “The duties involved in being a social worker, especially in a small town, involve a great deal of hustling to get your clients what they need to survive. Often times HIV/AIDS was of minimal concern. Housing, employment, schooling, and keeping the lights on for my clients took up most of my time. I even had clients that had no running water (in America!). So getting to the refugee camp, and seeing that they had the exact same problems, was a real eye opener. I had crossed an ocean, had not had an appropriate shower for weeks, and had just missed a cholera outbreak to find out that things were no different in the U.S.”

Chitou’s employer had given her many bags of medications to bring to the refugee camp. “Just as in the U.S.,” she says, “we were able to save a person for a month, but I always thought to myself, what about next month? Next year? When I finally got back to the States (with a much smaller waistline), it hit me that I had to have a seat at the table in order for true change to occur.” She knew it was the law that would get her that seat. Chitou applied to doctoral programs in social work/policy as well as to law school and received a full ride to a well-respected Ph.D. program. Torn between attending Rutgers School of Law–Newark or getting paid to receive her doctorate, she called Roberta Geddis, Assistant to the Dean of Admissions, and explained her dilemma. As Chitou recalls the conversation, “She said words that I will never forget: ‘People listen to lawyers.’” At the end of that phone call, I sent in my deposit to the law school. I have not looked back since.”

  Chitou at AA dinner 
  Osato Chitou poses at 2009 Alumni Association Recognition Dinner with (l-r) Michael Lasky ’78, David Garber ’88, and Scott Walker ’00. Garber is president of the Alumni Association and Lasky and Walker were dinner co-chairs.

After her first year of law school, Chitou chose to return to Ghana, an experience she described in an article for the National Jurist (March 2009). Of her decision to work as a legal intern for Shawbell Consulting in Accra, Ghana, she wrote: “I knew I had to visualize refugee camp and law firm in the same country. First, it was important for me to know that one can don a suit in ‘Africa’ and that the image of success does not only lie in America, France, or the UK, but one can also be very successful in the developing world. Second, it was important for me to work for a Ghanian-owned and operated firm, run by a Ghanian woman in what is a man’s world.”

Chitou has immersed herself in extracurricular activities at Rutgers. As a 2L, she served as president of the International Law Society, vice co-chair of the Women’s Law Forum, and professional development co-chair for the Minority Student Program. This year she is co-editor-in-chief of Rutgers Race and the Law Review, a member of the Moot Court Board, an Eagleton Institute of Politics Fellow, and a Legal Research & Writing Teaching Associate. These experiences, she believes, are training her for a future leadership position. “I am not quite sure what it is yet, but I am following this natural progression that will lead me to where I am supposed to be.”

At the 2009 Alumni Association Recognition Dinner, dinner co-chair Michael C. Lasky ’78 announced that Chitou had been awarded a new Alumni Association Scholarship in recognition of her many achievements and commitment to human rights and social justice. “Osato is a really distinguished student who is a pride to all of our alums,” said Lasky.

“It has been such a fascinating journey and to finally end here at Rutgers seems so right,” says Chitou. She is most proud of her ability “to balance all of the activities that I have been involved in with staying married,” an accomplishment she attributes to her “very understanding” husband, Ismael. “Without him, I don’t think that I would have made it this far.” She is also quick to acknowledge the wonderful friendships and connections she has made at Rutgers. “The law school is so diverse and filled with so many talented people from all different walks of life.”

After her May 2010 graduation, Chitou will work for Moses & Singer LLP, New York, whose practice areas include health law, clearly an area of particular interest to her. “I am not sure where my path will lead, but I do look forward to the journey.”