For public interest attorneys focusing on direct representation, the law gets personal, fast. For Sasha Prokopets ’14, it always has been.
When Prokopets was two years old, her family emigrated from the former Soviet Union and came up against the same challenges that many new Americans face: learning the language, finding work, and successfully navigating the immigration system. Her family was able to get the help they needed to find their footing.
As a new public interest attorney, Prokopets is now paying it forward and is helping other immigrant families connect with the support and resources they need. At KIND (Kids in Need of Defense) in Washington, D.C. Prokopets is a staff attorney providing direct services to unaccompanied minors who are seeking relief from the U.S. immigration system. Regardless of circumstances or origin, the clients she works with are coming to the U.S. for the same reason her family did—to find a better life.
While it was this connection to the past that propelled her toward public interest law, her time at UC Hastings helped her find her focus and gain the experience she needed. Because she wasn’t sure if she wanted to concentrate on human rights policy or direct representation, Prokopets tried her hand at both. She geared her coursework toward international human rights law, and during her first year summer, participated in a policy internship. During her second year she switched gears and began working on a direct representation case through the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic, an in-house clinic at UC Hastings which has a close relationship with the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies (CGRS). CGRS works to advance human rights of women, children, LGBT, and other refugees by focusing on gender-based asylum law and broader migration policies.
Under the mentorship of clinical professor Karen Musalo and instructor Christine Lin, Prokopets worked to help a Mexican national who was seeking asylum in the US because of LGBT persecution. From interviewing the client to filing the case, Prokopets and her team gained the kind of on-the-ground experience they could not get from the classroom: understanding trauma; best practices of interviewing techniques; learning the intricacies of governmental paperwork; and knowing where to send clients for relevant resources.
Ultimately, Prokopets credits the clinic with helping her define her future path: “Participating in the clinic was among the most transformative experiences of law school because I gained a true understanding of what it means to empower vulnerable individuals fleeing violence, in their efforts to achieve justice and equality. At that point, I realized I actually did want to do direct services.”
After graduating from UC Hastings, and completing an intensive Spanish language immersion program in Guatemala, Prokopets spent time as a volunteer attorney at the Tahirih Justice Center where she had done an internship during her 3L year. There, she learned of the permanent position at KIND, which she landed with her improved Spanish language skills. What made her volunteer time possible was a Bridge Fellowship. This UC Hastings program provides funding to recent grads so they can work in public interest positions, essentially bridging the gap between graduation and employment with meaningful and important work.
For many students, the stumbling block to a career in public interest law tends to be financial. Prokopets urges students to take full advantage of supportive mechanisms that UC Hastings has in place to help students serve vulnerable and underserved populations. For those considering a concentration in social justice Prokopets says, “If you’re set on doing social justice work, just follow your heart. It’s a rewarding career right from the beginning, and so far, it’s more than worth it.”