On Thursday, Sept. 28, sophomores attended a special assembly in Roberts Theater, where they heard from Shae Heitz, third year law student attending the University of Connecticut School of Law. Ms. Heitz works with humanitarian aid to support refugees.
English teacher Catherine Schieffelin explained that the English and history departments have been collaborating on this assembly every year for the past four years. It’s a culmination of sophomores’ work coming out of their overlapping English and history summer reading. “There’s real value in hearing from people working in the field of immigration law and hearing stories about local refugees,” Ms. Schieffelin said.
Ms. Schieffelin reached out to Ms. Heitz in August and asked if this was something she would be interested in. Ms. Heitz then connected with Ms. Schieffelin and Mr. Baker, and set up a Zoom meeting where they heard about Ms. Heitz’s experiences, asked questions, and went over what the format of the assembly would be.
In past years, the Asylum and Human Rights assembly for sophomores was a bit different. The first year was during the COVID-19 pandemic and was held on Zoom, the second year was in Tomasso, and then the last two years were in Roberts.
This year Ms. Heitz discussed her participation in the UConn Asylum and Human Rights Clinic where she represented a client from Afghanistan. Ms. Heitz’s role is working with her client through the entire asylum process. She conducts legal research to make an argument called a legal brief, and then submits all of that paperwork to the U.S. government with evidence arguing why her client should stay in the United States.
During the assembly History Department Chair David Baker and English teacher Catherine Schieffelin welcomed the audience followed by an introduction from sophomore Olivia Pilecki. Ms. Heitz opened by sharing some of her experiences, answering questions from the four student moderators, sophomores Jackson Poulin, Riley Anderson, Lola Peck, and Arthur Tittmann. To end the assembly, there was an open Q&A from students in the audience.
In August, Ms. Heitz received exciting news that her client was granted asylum. “That means she’ll be able to apply for her green card in a year, and then U.S. citizenship in about four years,” Ms. Heitz said. Hetiz’s client came to the United States through a program called Operation Allies Welcome, a government plan to bring Afghans to the U.S. “I also helped her adjust once she got in the United States,” Ms. Heitz said. “The challenges that she faced didn’t stop once she got here. She really had to learn how to adapt to the U.S. life and U.S. culture.”
Ms. Heitz also shared some things that made being a representative hard. “She would say, ‘I don’t have a doctor to go to,’ or ‘I don’t have enough food to eat,’ or ‘I don’t know if i’m going to be able to pay my rent,’” Ms. Heitz said, “and there were times where I couldn’t solve those problems because that wasn’t my job.”
Ms. Heitz mentioned that she first got interested in immigration law when she attended a naturalization ceremony, a ceremony where people receive their U.S citizenship. “I watched all of these people, these hundreds of people, get their citizenship,” Ms. Heitz said. “Some people weren’t as excited about it, and some people were crying and laughing, and it was a really an incredible experience to see. It was at that moment that I knew I wanted to serve.”
She also talked about the biggest misconception of refugees. “I think the biggest misconception is that they are doing this by choice,” Ms. Heitz said, also noting that she doesn’t agree with those who call refugees “illegal.”
Sophomore Riley Anderson talked about what it was like being a moderator for the event. “It was a great experience,” Riley said. “Meeting Shae was a great opportunity, especially as someone who wants to pursue a career in law.”
Sophomore Jackson Poulin also explained what he wanted to get out of this event. “I wanted to hear more about the personal side,” he said. “It was really interesting with the social work she was doing, as well as the law.”
KO is lucky to have hosted Ms. Heitz, and looks forward to next year’s speaker!