Author’s Note: Boston College Law School offers students the opportunity to do a full-time semester-in-practice in Washington, DC.
This fall I am working as a Law Intern at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. My other classmates from BC Law are working in various federal agencies and nonprofits, including the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission, as well as the US House of Representatives. Throughout the semester, I will be highlighting all of our experiences.
Here is the first in our BC in DC Spotlight series—on Cynthia Gonzalez!
Name: Cynthia Gonzalez
Year: BC Law Class of 2017
Undergraduate: Political Science
Current Externship: Human Rights First
Why did you choose to do the BC in DC program this fall?
Other than needing a break from rigorous exam preparation, I chose BC in DC because I wanted to get the most out of my law school experience. Being from a small town in Florida, larger cities are kind of a big deal. Thus, getting the chance to live in DC while still getting the BC law experience was an opportunity that I could not pass up.
How is your experience going in the externship?
I absolutely love everything about my externship and being in DC. The random black SUV’s are always a good reminder that I am in a place where people are really making history. Working at Human Rights First has truly been a humbling experience. Everyone in my office, attorneys and assistants, are intelligent and innovative. The office culture is one of my favorite “perks” of the job. I work in a very relaxed environment. We’re given the time and space to work on projects, while getting the mentorship we need to ensure quality work is being put out. They definitely value their interns!
My supervisors are not afraid to give out difficult assignments. For example, the managing attorney personally requested I translate two 20-page affidavits during a mock hearing, reading in English and translating word for word for the client in Spanish. I speak Spanish fluently, but I had to work extra hard to ensure I was providing an accurate translation. Not only did they trust me enough to invite me to the mock hearing, they also trusted that I’d give accurate translations.
Another example, just recently the attorneys asked me to guide a client through her first court appearance. I remember thinking, are they really asking me to go to court alone? Are they really asking me to be the face of Human Rights First right now? My client started representing herself pro se, until they kept looking back at me for answers. The judge asked me to state my name for the record, and at that point it was a whole lot of improvisation. We did get that continuance, though! That was a bit of a “getting thrown into the fire situation,” but, honestly, I came to law school to do exactly this type of work. So I am a bit biased when I say I love everything about my externship!
How is your experience going with the BC in DC seminar?
The weekly seminar is very helpful. It’s like coming home after a long day to vent about all the good and all of the bad (mostly good). We support each other as full-time externs going through the exact same experience. I’ve really enjoyed our recent guest speakers; not only does it give me hope for a future career in DC, but my networking skills have astoundingly improved. The weekly seminar is a good reminder that the real world hasn’t hit just yet, but it has definitely prepared me to handle the unexpected responsibilities of my externship.
What are some things you have learned so far (from the externship and seminar)?
Having not taken an immigration course, I’ve gotten a crash course in asylum and immigration law. I have taken a human rights course, which undoubtedly gave me a foundation to build on. Practice is a lot harder than learning it in a classroom, though. Immigration court is significantly different from a regular criminal or civil court. You’re not really litigating damages or prosecuting crimes, you’re actually fighting for these people’s lives. Literally. Rules of evidence do not apply in immigration court. This was a little difficult to understand, especially after having taken an Evidence course and being told it applies to everything! I’ve also learned a significant amount about gangs in Central America, and the individualized stories of those fleeing the Middle East. It’s one thing to hear about the war and conflict on the news, it’s another to see how these individuals have been personally affected by the situation on the ground!
What are your plans for the future?
I came to law school because I wanted to make a global impact. I also really did want to save lives, as clichéd as it sounds. In the position I am in right now I feel like I am doing just that. After graduation I’d really like to to join the military and practice military law for a while. I’d like to get some international experience before I start practicing a type of law that requires you to have knowledge of the international arena. My plan is to do JAG for a while, then make my way into the human rights field, ideally doing exactly what I am doing now. I’ve always been interested in the intersection between human rights law and humanitarian law (law of armed conflict). Hopefully, with a military law background and my involvement in human rights, I will be able to find something within that field.
Any advice for other BC Law students that are considering the BC in DC program and/or a career in human rights law?
My advice for anyone considering BC in DC: Just do it. Honestly, though, don’t let anything stop you if it’s something you really want to do. Apply for any job that sounds interesting, figure out the rest later. I currently have an hour and a half commute to get to my job everyday. It is a serious sacrifice, but my current positon is the most rewarding type of of work that I’ve done in my entire law school career. If there is a will, there is definitely a way!
I also recommend BC in DC for gaining more experience in other areas of law—you may like something you didn’t know you liked. My recommendation would be to go on the career website Simplicity and explore your options. If you find something that you would consider applying for, do it. You have nothing to lose. DC is great. The networking opportunities you’ll have are immense. There are several other law students in my organization from California and Georgia doing the same type of full-time externship. We are actually planning a Salsa Night with all the interns. So it’s not all work all the time. It’s another opportunity to connect with people doing the same thing, with the same interests. You’ll love it!
My advice for anyone planning a career in human rights would be: You have to be committed to the people. Every case is not a simple run-of-the-mill, same fact-patterned case. These are lives we’re fighting for. Their stories are not easy to process. However, I promise if you have the heart and passion for this work, you’ll feel the relief when you get that grant of asylum for your client. You kind of just saved someone’s life. And to me, that’s all that matters! I don’t think I could have gotten this experience anywhere but in DC.
Cynthia Gonzalez is a 3L at Boston College Law School, Class of 2017.
Zain Ahmad is a 3L at Boston College Law School, Class of 2017.