Watching the New Year’s Eve fireworks illuminate Edinburgh Castle with my boyfriend and fellow Mitchell Scholars Vicki and Lara, I reminisced on the year 2008. In the past year, I had graduated from college, visited with my adoptive mother for the first time in four years and, through the vision of George J. Mitchell, traveled to countries outside the United States for the first time. In those moments of nostalgia, I also remembered the first day I arrived in Northern Ireland. Being placed in an unfamiliar setting, I faced a certain degree of ambiguity. I was unsure how the Northern Irish people would view an openly gay, ex-frat boy from Alabama. But, within one week of living in Belfast, I made friends with several people from Northern Ireland,in both my academic program and in social settings. Nearly everyone I met this semester was hospitable, outgoing, and eager to meet Americans. By immersing myself in the Northern Ireland culture and seeking opportunities to interact with the locals, I have certainly adapted. Even now, I find myself referring to Belfast as my home when speaking to family and friends across the Atlantic.
Northern Ireland, and the Queen’s University Belfast School of Law, in particular, have presented numerous opportunities that have definitely had a value-added impact on my Mitchell experience. From traveling extensively through Ireland, the United Kingdom, and mainland Europe, to working with the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, I have interacted with countless cultures and peoples. In my LL.M. modules, I have been exposed to students from Brazil, France, Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, India and China. These people, diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, language, religion, political opinion and sexual orientation, have become my closest friends. Whether debating the application of cultural relativism in the case of female circumcision or taking shots of Jameson’s Irish whiskey in the Student Union the night after final examinations, my colleagues constantly challenge and encourage me.
While each student and professor in the law department has a developed interest in a specific area of human rights law, the one characteristic that we all share is passion. Over a round of Guinness after class one evening, I realized that I was in the company of individuals who, like me, envisioned an international community where “ . . . everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms . . . without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article II). This shared vision, the relationships I have built and continue to secure, and the collaborative impact of both on my studies, have undoubtedly shaped my personal values and goals.
Through research with professors and partnerships with human rights organizations in Belfast, I have realized that I want to devote not only my current academic trajectory but also my future career to the promotion of human rights. Like the solicitors and barristers who assist the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, I aspire to practice public interest law. Ultimately, I will use my Mitchell experience and the education it has provided to promote and protect the rights of society’s most vulnerable members: one Muslim, one woman, one Catholic, one gay man, one disabled person, and so on, without end.