Advocacy with heart: mentoring newcomers

Nicole LaViolette

“Those of us who lived under her professional guidance will always be grateful.” - Usta Kaitesi

When Usta Kaitesi arrived at uOttawa from her native Rwanda to study in the Faculty of Law, Common Law Section, she was at an immediate disadvantage. Most of her classmates understood the legal and academic culture. They studied in groups, networked, sought help from student services, attended tutorials and asked professors for advice or references as needed. Like other new immigrant and refugee students, though, Kaitesi did not understand those cultural and social norms. She felt lost.

Nicole LaViolette, who taught international law and human rights, noticed. She befriended Kaitesi, as she had many new immigrant and refugee students. An internationally renowned expert in applying refugee law to sexual minorities, LaViolette was sensitive not only to the need for equity, but to the steps required to achieve it. Putting her beliefs into practice, she created an intensive, three-week summer program to address the systemic barriers to academic success that new immigrant and refugee students face.

“She saw a situation where newcomers to the country who were taking law were often struggling,” says LaViolette’s life partner, Lisa Hébert. “They’re in a new country, and there are all the stresses of learning about that new country while also learning about its laws.”

The program, which students can complete before starting law school, gives them a firm grounding in how Canadian courts work and how laws are made. It introduces them to the courts, tribunals and the federal human rights commission and justice department, builds their confidence, and walks them through the unspoken norms related to academic success.

“It turns people who might otherwise be challenged and get poorer grades in their first year of law school into leaders,” says Hébert.

In May 2015, LaViolette died of cancer. Before her death, she ensured that her efforts to support students would live on, through a fund that will support the three-week program, as well as bursaries, scholarships, tutoring and mentoring  programs for new immigrant and refugee students in the French Common Law program.

LaViolette “was a wonderful mentor,” says Kaitesi. “She advised me about my career and my academic path.” When Kaitesi graduated, LaViolette not only took her to dinner, she presented Kaitesi with her first business cards. Today, Kaitesi is the principal of the College of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Rwanda.

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