A progression of experiences that first raised and then deepened an interest in social justice and human rights issues for Stephanie Robins ’14 began in her hometown of Montclair, New Jersey. In the township’s public schools, “social justice issues were woven into most lessons. Combating inequality through social justice work was encouraged as was volunteering and helping others.”
Robins recalls an incident from sixth grade as one of the first times that she witnessed injustice and racism. “Two of my friends and I stopped at a convenience store on our walk home from school,” she reports. “My friend who was a black male was followed and watched by the store clerk, while my white friend and I were ignored. That manifestation of racism had a profound impact on me by shaping the way I saw the world and the ongoing need to fight inequality and injustice.”
|As an undergraduate, Robins spent a January term in Senegal where, she says, “I felt an immediate connection to the city of Dakar, the people I met, and the culture.”
As an undergraduate at Mount Holyoke College, Robins, who was fluent in French after studying in France for a year while in high school, decided to take a January term trip to Senegal to maintain her language skills. “I felt an immediate connection to the city of Dakar, the people I met, and the culture,” she says. “I knew that I had to return.”
Robins elected to spend her junior year in Senegal where she attended University Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar and researched topics in migration and public health. After receiving her B.A. cum laude in anthropology with a concentration in African studies, she returned to Senegal to work. She stayed in Dakar for 18 months, where her jobs included teaching English to students and professionals and supervising a cultural program designed to foster understanding between Senegalese and foreigners.
Robins then lived in Fez, Morocco for four months before returning to the United States. As a lead case manager for the International Institute of New Jersey in Jersey City, she coordinated access to social services for asylum seekers, immigrant victims of domestic violence, and victims of human trafficking.
Senegal had a profound impact on the way Robins views social justice and on her decision to become a lawyer. She explains: “Prior to living in Senegal, I perceived grassroots activism and development work as the primary methods of changing public policy and achieving social justice. However, living in Senegal completely altered my views. I witnessed first-hand the impact a public interest lawyer can have, not only in improving peoples’ lives, but also making lasting change. Observing how the law could be used for good to serve the disenfranchised motivated me to apply to law school.”
The public interest legacy of “the People’s Electric Law School” drew Robins to Rutgers School of Law–Newark. “In Senegal I knew that if I were to become a lawyer, I was going to be a public interest lawyer or a ‘people’s lawyer,’ to borrow from Arthur Kinoy, and so I needed to attend an institution that valued and encouraged public interest work.”
In Senegal I knew that if I were to become a lawyer, I was going to be a public interest lawyer or a ‘people’s lawyer,’ to borrow from Arthur Kinoy, and so I needed to attend an institution that valued and encouraged public interest work.
As a 1L, Robins was awarded the school’s inaugural Immigrant Rights Fellowship, which gave her the opportunity to enroll as a 2L in the Immigrant Rights Clinic (IRC). She describes her ongoing participation in the clinic as the best experience she has had in law school. She has represented asylum seekers before the Newark Asylum Office, conducted “Know Your Rights” presentations at local detention centers, and organized a day-long panel on immigration representation in New Jersey. Professor Anju Gupta, IRC Director, has been, she adds, “an incredible mentor throughout my three years here who has mentored and encouraged me tirelessly.”
In addition to her Immigrant Rights Fellow responsibilities and related internship with the American Friends Service Committee, Robins is submissions editor for the Women’s Rights Law Reporter, president of the Immigrant Rights Collective, co-chair of the Courtroom Advocates Program, and co-founder and co-chair of Students Opposed to Violence Against Women. Her article “Backing It Up: Real ID’s Impact on the Corroboration Standard in Women’s Private Asylum Claims” will be published in 2014 by the Women’s Rights Law Reporter.
Over the years and through experiences living abroad, working in Jersey City, and attending Rutgers–Newark, Robins’ focus on social justice and human rights narrowed to the field of immigration. Accepted into the U.S. Department of Justice’s Honors Program in the Executive Office for Immigration Review, in September she will begin a judicial law clerkship at the New York Immigration Court – ideal training for an immigrant rights advocate.
After her clerkship, Robins can see herself taking a few different paths. She is interested in providing direct client services to immigrants, particularly cases involving asylum, survivors of torture, detention, and issues surrounding gender-based violence. “Public policy issues pertaining to immigration are also of great interest to me,” she adds, “and I would ultimately like to have a career that works toward making immigration law more just.”
Relatedly, but not exclusive to immigrants, Robins also wants to have a role in expanding access to legal representation. “I am interested in building models of holistic legal services where low- and middle- income individuals can access legal and social services in one location.”
Recognizing Robins’ strong record of public service and commitment to a public interest law career, the law school Alumni Association last fall awarded her the Fannie Bear Besser Public Service Scholarship.