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Alum Profile: Anna Cabot

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Anna Cabot ’95 is the William R. Davis Clinical Teaching Fellow in the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic at University of Connecticut School of Law where her students represent refugees who have fled from persecution and are seeking asylum in the United States.

As Anna describes her initial post-college plans, she envisioned a very different life, one pursuing theoretical physics as a professor at a liberal arts school in a “cute” college town. In fact, after graduating from Amherst College, she was awarded a Fulbright to pursue her studies for a year in the south of India, in Chennai (also known as Madras), at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences. She worked under a professor on a project that involved a lot of matrix algebra, and while it was theoretical, as she’d hoped, and not experimental, she found it less than fascinating. The grad school culture was also a disappointment, and Anna found her interest in a life in academic physics waning. 

At the same time, she was “confronted with a lot more poverty, suffering, and environmental degradation than I ever had been before and it abruptly made me feel that the work I was doing was meaningless.” Anna is quick to point out that she doesn’t believe that physics is unimportant but rather that what she witnessed in India made her feel that she wanted the work she did “to have a much more direct effect on people.” Her focus changed to human rights work, but not before she met her now-fiance, who is, yes, a theoretical physicist whose work Anna is glad to have the vocabulary to understand!

After her year in India, Anna returned to the United States and interned at various human rights organizations in the Boston area. Eventually, she decided that law school would provide the tools and leverage she wanted to be effective as a human rights advocate, so she studied for the LSAT and applied to law schools. Before entering American University Washington Law School in Washington, DC, Anna returned to India for a year to work in Kerala and Delhi on a broad spectrum of human rights issues. An example was a suit against a Coca Cola plant for poisoning people by dumping waste into the local water. She was the only foreigner working in the area and didn’t speak the language. As Anna describes the experience with her typical humility, she isn’t sure she was much help, “but I learned a lot and a lot about myself.”

Anna entered law school upon her return from India. She chose American “because of its amazing set of international human rights programs.” Though the first year was full of courses on property, civil procedure, torts, contracts - “stuff it was hard to convince myself I wanted to know because I never wanted to use the law for that”- the following year allowed Anna to participate in the human rights clinic similar to what she now teaches at UConn. The Law School Dean was president of the United Nations Committee Against Torture and took Anna and five other students to Geneva for one of the UN sessions on the topic.

Her first post-law school job was a fellowship at the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Washington. The Prison Project litigates class action suits against state and federal departments of correction for inadequate medical and mental health care. “It was fascinating and important work,”says Anna, “but I found that even though I believed in the mission of the project, I missed working directly with people.” After a year, Anna made an abrupt change and moved to Tanzania to work for Asylum Access, helping refugees access their rights to work, education, and refuge in the first country where they seek it. Asylum Access is a US-based organization and Anna worked for them during their first year of operation. Her task was to set up the legal services program. While the work was challenging and exciting, it was also frustrating because Tanzania “does not have a functioning asylum process” and “wants all its refugees to remain in camps,” Anna explains. Thus, refugees from wars such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo arrive in Tanzania and are mistreated because they have no legal status. After a year, Anna decided to return to the United States to use her law degree for human rights work here.

She became the Managing Attorney at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, a small non profit providing legal services to those seeking asylum, domestic violence victims, and those with immigration status issues. Anna supervised and trained attorneys, paralegals, student law clerks, and volunteers. Responding to a wide-ranging problem, she undertook a study on the challenges faced by Mexican asylum-seekers for the Center for Migration Studies.

All these roads led to Anna’s current position at UConn where she teaches and supervises students in the law school clinic program when they take asylum cases. She describes her job as “awesome,” “the best job,” and one she loves. Asked for an example of a challenging case, she describes a female client from Haiti who suffered considerable abuse, along with her mother, at the hands of her father. She and her mother and other siblings eventually left their town for Port au Prince to start a new life. A few years later, the young woman went to college and met other women who believed that domestic violence is wrong and women should be able to escape such situations. They created a feminist, anti-domestic violence organization that met periodically and made statements. Then, the two other female students who started the group were murdered and the client was abducted and almost killed, all because of their activism. She fled the country for the U.S. and two of Anna’s students represented her in an appeal for asylum on the basis of persecution for her political beliefs. And they won.

Not all law schools have clinic programs, though they are becoming more popular, according to Anna. Since only ten students can participate in a clinic at any one time, they are an expensive undertaking for a school. “It is an amazing experience for students,” contends Anna. “It prepares students better than anything for actually practicing law.” 

Looking back on her years at GUS, Anna says, “I have memories of times at Glen Urquhart when confronting how you feel was something that was valued, and that is something that is really important when you work with people who have suffered trauma. That is something that is not commonly taught, and it so important with the kind of work I do.”