“You don’t have to do everything alone. In fact, you’re not alone. There are a bunch of people who care about you deeply; you might not even know who they are yet. But they’re there, accessible, and want to see you thrive in the world. You are a contribution and you’ll continue to be a contribution. Just be patient.”
These are the words Indigenous law school graduate Harpreet Ahuja would tell her 12 year old self. Years later, she’s moments away from becoming a lawyer and a challenger. I could share more about this fearless Indigenous woman changemaker (talking with her on Zoom was a joy -- highly recommend!), but her words hold great wisdom -- colouring these pages with resilience and courage. And so, without further delay, here is our first interview together!
Rosie Paulyk: Harpreet Ahuja is here with us today. We are so, so honoured to have her here and we are going to get right into this! So, Harpreet, I am wondering if you can tell us a little bit about who you are.
Harpreet Ahuja: Alright, so, I’m a recent law school graduate. I graduated in 2017 from the University of Ottawa and I went on to Article with Legal Aid Ontario and I was put through a rotation system. So, I was first working with Aboriginal Legal Services, then with the Refugee Law Office, then my last rotation with Criminal Litigation Services. And I wanted to expand my legal skills and my interests because I wasn’t sold on traditional lawyering, so I decided to apply to LL.M. programs, which are Master of Laws programs. Especially in the United States, because I wanted to give it a go and see if I could get in, get funding, and do it! So, that’s what I did. I applied and I spent a year at UCLA (University of California Los Angeles) and I specialized in International Law, but very much with a focus on public interest law. I graduated in June 2019.
RP: Wow! So, fairly recently then, hey? This year.
HA: Yeah, and I just finished a summer Fellowship at Yale Law School, working in the Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic. So I just finished that in September (2019).
RP: Wow. What was it like attending Yale?
HA: That’s a really good question. It can be very intimidating -- especially for someone like me, who’s the first in their family to go to university, let alone law school. And at the time, I had very minimal resources, so a lot of how I got through school was through bursaries or through scholarships, and working multiple jobs. And when you’re in those types of, I would say, Ivory Tower places, -- whether it’s an institution or a university or even in practice, working for a private firm or being around your colleagues in these highly intellectual spaces -- you sort-of tend to feel like you’re inadequate. Those feelings do come out of you, no matter how confident you are or how much your resume reflects that you’ve merited what you’re doing. So that was -- I had a bit of Imposter Syndrome -- but when I put that aside, it was a really incredible, eye-opening opportunity to see how institutions like Yale use their money to support community and what cases are specifically chosen within the university community and how students are trained within that capacity. So students are also being prepped before they graduate so that they have some lawyer skills under their belt.
RP: Right. So at this point, then, I know you’re in Los Angeles right now. So what are you up to in LA at this moment?
HA: Okay, so I am in LA, not for any reason other than for love!
RP: Oh, wow. Okay! I love that! Yes, alright, alright!
HA: So, my boyfriend lives here, and I’m down to spend time with him and do the Thanksgiving thing with his family. So that’s why I’m here right now. But what I’m actually doing besides that is I’m studying for the law licensing exams.
RP: Okay, yep.
HA: Yes. Which is gruesome. And it’s mentally draining. And I dread doing it. But it’s what needs to be done. It’s something I have avoided. I wasn’t sold on traditional lawyering, but at the same time, even if I’m not sold on it, you realize that you have to conform in a lot of ways. To just be respected and also so your pay is reflective of all the hard work you did. So I feel this is my last step, my last goal, before I can go out there and start getting real world lawyer, you know, “fancy” lawyer experience.
RP: Yes. So, I know this is going to be a ballpark, but at the end of this studying, how many hours do you think you’ll have put in to studying for this one exam?
HA: Oh my goodness. A lot. It’s full days so I try to do as much as I can in a day, depending on how I feel and my attention span. I would say, maybe, a good 5 hours a day for a few months. That’s what I’ve been putting in. Just so I make sure I’m super prepared, I’ve done all the practice questions, and I go in very calm. Very confident with the material. I didn’t want to set myself up to be overwhelmed. I didn’t want to set myself up to not have any mental capacity left to spend time with family. One of my favourite pastimes right now is going out to the beach in Nova Scotia to collect sea glass.
RP: So next steps-wise, could you reflect on why you chose international law, specifically, public interest law?
HA: I think it’s just a part of me. As cliche as that might sound, you know, I grew up in a household that was low income and I saw how people without resources pretty much get taken advantage of because they don’t know their rights, or because they can’t advocate for themselves, or because they can’t afford these lawyers. So, I was always about the underdog. As an underdog myself, wanting to challenge the system. And I struggled for awhile with that because I wanted to challenge the system. But in order to do that, you have to be a part of the system. And I see limitations in that. And I see the benefits in that. And I decided that, in order to truly challenge the system, you have to understand it. To be in it. So, you know, soon enough I’ll be a lawyer and people will label me as such. But I will always be myself -- a challenger.
To go back to your question (about public interest law) it’s just who I am. It’s deeply rooted in me. My opinion or voice or legal argument or writing this badass brief...it’s a form of expression. A form of self-expression. And so I’m going to keep channeling that.
I believe that we need to make things a little more even in this world. The world can be a very unfair place and I think that if I can just be one little guy out there trying to make things a little more even then I’ll keep doing that.
RP: You know, I sent out a call to SheNative’s community for changemakers in North America. And there were many nominations and suggestions and that was incredible to see that. And Harpreet did something different -- she reached out and sent an incredible email my way and nominated herself. By doing that she was, in fact, challenging the ask -- which was great and I loved it! I thought it was so bold. And before we continue, we’re just honoured to have you, Harpreet. Seriously.
HA: Thank you so much Rosie. Just to add on to that, if it gives any inspiration to anyone, I would say that most of what I’ve accomplished or made happen for myself -- I did it by just putting my name “in the bucket.” I just did it fearlessly, without putting too much emphasis on it or making it so significant to the point where it would cripple me, allowing me to doubt myself. I just put my name out there, submitted those applications, sent those emails, made those phone calls. Really, that’s how I’ve gotten a lot of opportunities.
RP: You know, what’s so wonderful about that is -- you’ve already mentioned bursaries, scholarships, helping you through school. Sometimes maybe you’re nominated but I mean -- sometimes did you put in applications to get these as well?
HA: Yeah, a lot of them were really extensive applications outlining why I was deserving of these awards or bursaries and oftentimes with community advocating for me. You can’t forget that. You’ve got to gather your cheerleaders and be like: Okay, cool. This is what I want to do. How can you guys support me?
HA: And it’s incredible, the lengths that people will go for you to help you realize what it is that you want to accomplish. So yes. In part it’s me really being bold and courageous and tuning that internal dialogue down that tells you that you’re not good enough. This little voice in you that you’ve got to just put aside and then go ahead and put your name in there anyway. It’s also through communicating and engaging with community, letting people know that this is your vision for yourself. And then taking actions that are consistent with that. And just keep following through, making sure you get in that door.
I’m more than passionate, I’m a “challenger.” What being a challenger means to me is, doing the thing that you think can’t be done. I think that’s what’s allowed me to get to this point. I thought back then that I’d never be in a position to apply to law school, so I framed it as a challenge: let’s see if I can do it. And for me framing it as a challenge gives me a healthy push. But it also translates more broadly like out there in the world because I’m less likely to accept something just because “it is the way it is” or because it’s been done that way for so long.
I also think about the word “passionate” and how it’s used, and no doubt, it is rooted in privilege. Most people work because they need to work. You know, you look at my LinkedIn or a potential employer will see my resume, but what no one will see, is the job where I mopped floors, worked as a dishwasher, worked that retail job, the coffee gig, and all at the same time, did the kind of work that I could put on my resume to get me where I wanted to be. So I don’t lose sight of that, I don’t lose sight of how I’ve gotten myself to a place where I can pursue a passion and make a living out of it.
RP: So I’m going to ask you one more question for today. Let’s pick a moment here. Is there an age in your childhood where a big change happened for you? You don’t have to say what happened, but is there a particular age?
RP: Okay, what was that age?
RP: 12. Okay, so if you could look back and say anything to 12 year old Harpreet, what would that be?
HA: You don’t have to do everything alone. In fact, you’re not alone. There are a bunch of people who care about you deeply; you might not even know who they are yet. But they’re there, accessible, and want to see you thrive in the world. You are a contribution and you’ll continue to be a contribution. Just be patient.
Thank you again to Harpreet Ahuja for joining us. Can’t wait to follow her journey and see where it takes her next! If you have questions for her, she’d love to connect with you on Instagram or LinkedIn