In Ogun State, Nigeria, Zainab Okunowo saw two paths to success: a career in law or a one in communications. When it came time to go to university, she chose to pursue law.
While in Lagos, she interned at the attorney general’s office working on criminal justice reform, preparing for what she thought might be a career as a prosecutor. One of the areas she focused on in her internship was the incarceration of children. A lot of homeless, orphaned or abandoned children were being locked up in adult prisons during street sweeps, or for stealing food in order to survive.
“I had to interview them one-by-one, and we’d have to try to count backward through their memories because some didn’t know their age,” Okunowo said.
During her time there, they were able to see to the release of many of those children.
After that internship, she worked for the Enugu State Ministry of Justice, and later as a volunteer lawyer for the State of Lagos. They had started a new court to hear sexual violence cases, which were on the rise in Lagos. It was during that time that her U.S. visa application, which had been pending for 13 years, had been approved.
Her younger sister, who is a nurse at Grady Hospital, and her older brother, had come over years earlier on an education visa. Zainab and her older brother, who was a filmmaker in South Africa, came at the end of 2019.
When she moved to the Atlanta, she lived with her sister. Her first jobs were working part-time at Marshall’s and at an Amazon fulfillment center sorting upwards of 80,000 packages an hour. She says that the work was grueling, and she remembered the advice that relatives gave her: Don’t get too comfortable. After work, she researched law schools and was preparing to study for the LSAT, then Georgia State University College of Law offered another option.
The bar track path in the College of Law’s LL.M. program prepares lawyers who were educated in other countries to pass the Georgia bar exam. She applied and was ecstatic when she got in.
Now, Okunowo is a graduate assistant in the LL.M. program, LL.M. Senator for the Student Bar Association at the College of Law, and she is also doing pro bono work with Atlanta Legal Aid.
“I thought everything was perfect in the U.S.,” Okunowo said. “I read “Just Mercy” [as a part of the College of Law’s new student orientation,] and I saw that a lot of things are not as they seem to be. There is still work to be done, such as the way kids are incarcerated. I really want to work with juveniles.”
For now, she’s happy to make connections at Georgia State and to take classes in public policy and social justice to further her goals.
“At my other schools, you can’t just walk into the office and talk to the dean,” Okunowo said. “This place has been so open. They’re always after your success.”
Written by Kelundra Smith