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Students Explore Children’s Rights in Costa Rica

Spending part of spring break learning about the lives, challenges, and hopes of people in immigrant squatter communities in San Jose, Costa Rica, prompted Jobena Hill (J.D./M.B.A. ’19) to reflect on what true success means.

“As law students, we are conditioned to focus on our grades, awards, rankings and titles – as they are what matter in life and what truly define our success,” she said. “This experience puts the pressures of law school and life in perspective and reminds me to measure my success not by my accomplishments, but in the amount of lives I can touch.”

Hill and eight other Georgia State Law students—Karina Deochand (J.D. ’18), Jarvarus Gresham (J.D. ’18), Chae Mims (J.D. ’17), Paul Panusky (J.D. ’19), Christina Scott (J.D. ’18), Daniela Villamizar (J.D., ’17), Kristen Wilson (J.D. ’17), Diego Zorrilla (J.D. ’19)—spent nine days in the Central American country exploring children’s rights issues, including child migration, education and how children’s rights law is implemented in practice.

Jonathan Todres, professor of law, led the study abroad program, sponsored by Center for Law, Health & Society. The Global Perspectives on Children and the Law course was a partnership with the United Nations-mandated University for Peace (UPEACE) and its Centre for Executive Education and included a mixture of classroom time and site visits.

“The agenda fully encompassed the entire children’s rights framework, from children themselves in their home and school environments, to the largest NGOs working in the region and around the world, to the Costa Rican government itself,” Diego Zorrilla (J.D. ’19) said. “We were able to interact with the issues, learn about the practices and programs in place, and innovate new methods to improve and expand child services.”

Lecturers in the classroom included UPEACE faculty members Olivia Sylvester, whose work focuses on cultural rights that arise in the context of food and food procurement among indigenous populations, and Miriam Estrada-Castillo, who spoke about human rights law and the Costa Rican experience, as well as Lindsay Fendt, a journalist who has covered migration issues in Costa Rica and the region.

Students were introduced to how social innovation can be applied to humanitarian challenges that are the focus of human rights law, Todres said.

“This course introduced perspectives that will not only help us approach legal issues differently but will assist in the development of solutions with an eye for innovation and efficiency in systems in which we aspire to work,” said Jarvarus Gresham (J.D. ’18).

“I never considered before how the conventional environmental conservation worldview could have negative human rights implications on a population,” said Chae Mims (J.D. ’17). “The lectures demonstrated to me the power of understanding another’s perspective, and reminded me of what UPEACE taught us — social innovation is creative. Creativity may manifest in the design considered, but also in the process of reaching the design. Creative process many times will require the humility to consider another perspective, or even to change our own.”

Through the site visits, students met with representatives from government agencies as well as both international organizations—including UNICEF and the International Organization for Migration—and local nongovernmental organizations working to advance children’s rights and well-being.

“The site visits gave us opportunities to think about both how design thinking would apply in practice and how the law and lawyers might be able to support marginalized communities and help foster positive outcomes for children and their families,” Todres said.

In addition, they visited the Inter-American Court of Human Rights; Tecnológico de Costa Rica, a major university which has a program aimed at increasing access to higher education for indigenous students in Costa Rica; and met with an immigration attorney who provided insights on Costa Rican law and the practice of immigration law.

Todres said it was gratifying to see how the students challenged and supported each other on the trip. “Their commitment to the program and long-term to using their legal training to make the world a better place inspires me both in my teaching and in my own work.”

Zorilla agreed that the thoughtful conversations with the group members added to the educational experience. “Everyone was big-hearted, forward-thinking, and committed to leaving behind a world better than they found it,” he said. “Such a group would not have come together had we not noticed those same characteristics in Professor Todres from the start.”