The Inside Scoop: The Stories Behind the 2014 PILF Honoree Nominations

Last year, Stephanie Grajales, 3L, and I co-chaired the Public Interest Law Foundation (PILF) Auction.  Among other accomplishments, we introduced a new concept to bring the students who benefit from the money raised front and center at the auction: Public Interest Honorees. By celebrating the public interest work these students had done, we hoped to elevate the importance of public interest work in our community. Students nominated their peers, and at the auction we featured them in a slideshow, crowned them, and entered them into a raffle for $100 toward any auction item.

This year, PILF Auction Co-Chairs Lane Feler and Carrie Tirell took up the cause.  They solicited nominations from the whole school and honored seven students: Paul Chander, Sara Chimene-Weiss, Suehyan Cho O’Leary, Madiba Dennie, Bassam Khawaja, Katherine Park, and Carrie Tirrell. Carrie Tirrell notes that, “if we had received more [nominations] than we did, we probably would have needed to vote as a board, but as it stands, we decided to trust the nomination choices of our fellow classmates.”

And so, the Morningside Muckraker interviewed some of those classmates to find out what motivated them to make their nominations. From what we heard, the co-chairs were right to trust them with the task of honoring deserving peers:

Students often nominated friends they had made through CLS. 2L Hubert Ahn recounts that he met his nominee Carrie Tirell, 2L, rather randomly, while out for lunch in the Upper West Side. After noticing that Hubert and his friends were law students, she said, “We should just sit together!” and then when she found out Hubert was into running she persisted: “That’s totally something I want to do!” Hubert says, “I was much faster than Carrie at running at first, which I figured would dissuade her from wanting to run with me, but she was gung-ho about it, and became the one bugging me to go running all the time.”

It was her combination of determination and uncompromising nature that drew Hubert in, since he considers himself the opposite — a pragmatist who doesn’t have intense feelings about either side in a conflict. Law school has taught Hubert to appreciate different approaches to problems, and in particular, he “realized how much the public interest sector needs people like Carrie to be real advocates. I wanted to nominate her for the PILF award after realizing how valuable a role those advocates play.”


Chris Burke, a 3L, nominated Katherine Park, whom he met as a 1L when they were both board members of Society for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (SIRR). They grew close as 2Ls when Chris was president and Katherine was Vice President. Chris explained that he nominated her because, “She’s not someone who seeks the limelight, and I’ve always felt that all her work goes unappreciated, so it seemed natural to nominate her, to give people a chance to see all the amazing work she’s been doing in law school. I feel like that’s true of all the nominees, they’ve all been engaged in a lot of really important projects while they’ve been here, and I think that recognition at PILF gives them a chance to be recognized.”


Naz Ahmad nominated Suehyan Cho-O’Leary, who became one of her closest friends at law school after doing HRIP during their 1L summer.  Naz says that she nominated her because, “In addition to dedicating significant time to working in public interest throughout law school, I know how deeply she thinks about the factors that affect law students’ decisions to work in public interest, either directly after law school or down the road. Beyond rejecting the public-private dichotomy that is sometimes forced down our throats, she has a deep understanding of and appreciation for the various personal reasons that affect someone’s decision. Also, even though she and I want to do different work in different areas (direct services v. impact, immigration v. national security), she embodies the kind of reflective, thoughtful, and responsible approach to advocacy that I aspire to myself. Moreover, she is willing to defend her opinions, regardless of whether she thinks they are popular.”


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The Morningside Muckraker congratulates all the honorees!

Paul Chander


Paul Chander not only has done extensive volunteer work for public interest non-profit organizations, but also has been extremely active in the Columbia Law School public interest community, encouraging and inspiring other students to strive toward achieving positive social change through legal work.

This past summer, he interned at Bay Area Legal Aid in Oakland, California, where he wrote a brief for a social security appeal and successfully represented an indigent client before an administrative law judge, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. This semester, Paul is externing with the National Employment Law Project, and this summer he will be interning for the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center where he will be representing low-income workers in employment discrimination and wage theft cases. In addition, Paul has done extensive pro bono work through the Spring Break Caravans, volunteering with the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana in 2014 and The Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia in 2013.

Paul has worked tirelessly to encourage other students to also engage in public interest work. He has served as co-chair of Student Senate’s SJI Focus Group, working with administrators to implement various reforms, including increasing summer funding, expanding experiential learning opportunities, and improving SJI’s presence on campus. In February 2013, he organized a group of students to attend the 20th annual Rebellious Lawyering Conference at Yale Law School. And he has started a new public interest student organization, Student Public Interest Network (SPIN), which will serve as a supportive community and advocacy platform for Columbia students pursuing public interest careers.

Paul received GSF for the summer of 2013 and will be receiving GSF for the summer of 2014.

NELSON HUA / Morningside Muckraker


Sara Chimene-Weiss


Sara spent both summers at public interest organizations, interned at the NAACP LDF during the year, did the suspension representation project, and is a dedicated member of the Prisoners and Families Clinic.

She has tutored through the Harlem Tutoring project, and traveled to the Lakota reservation in South Dakota to do a pro bono caravan. She did HRIP her first summer at a human rights organization in Kathmandu, Nepal. During her second summer, Sara worked at both the EPA Boston office and a public-interest firm.

She is also a great ambassador for public interest at CLS—she believes strongly in what she does but is not at all preachy or annoying when she talks about it and urges other people to get involved. Sara is widely recognized as one of the most committed members of the CLS public interest community. She is a visible leader on public interest advocacy and career choice issues at the law school.

In addition to these public-service oriented activities, Sara served as Executive Note Editor of the Journal of Law and Social Problems, as a Board member of the New England Law Students Association, on the Class Gift Committee, and is a peer mentor. She has worked as a teaching assistant for Professors Jay Heubert and Elizabeth Emens, and a research assistant for Professor Gillian Metzger.

Sara will be clerking for a federal judge after graduating and intends to pursue a career in in public interest law, indigent legal service, and policy advocacy.

NOLAN THOMAS / Morningside Muckraker


Suehyan Cho-O’Leary

IMG_1701Suehyan Cho-O’Leary has devoted her time at CLS to pursuing public interest work, specifically in the areas of international human rights and immigrants’ rights. Over her 1L summer, she worked at the AIRE Center in London, providing direct services to clients seeking immigration-related advice.

As a 2L, she did an externship at the Bronx Defenders working at their family defense practice. Over her 2L summer, she worked at the Immigrant Council of Ireland in Dublin. As a 3L, she has externed with the African Services Committee and The Legal Aid Society, focusing on providing direct services to clients on immigration-related issues.

Suehyan embodies a thoughtful, reflective approach to public interest work that I aspire to emulating. I would not have made it through law school without her support, particularly when it comes to committing yourself to public interest work.

NELSON HUA / Morningside Muckraker


Madiba Dennie

pilf-madibaPublic interest work and the furtherance of social justice has undoubtedly been the focal point of Madiba’s law school career.  Her desire to attend law school generally, and Columbia Law School specifically, was grounded in her deep concern with the protection and advancement of the rights of marginalized persons.  She has been especially interested in issues surrounding women’s rights and racial justice, and the intersection of marginalized identities.

As such, last summer she participated in the Human Rights Internship Program and served as a Research and Campaign Intern with Equality Now – an international women’s and girls’ human rights organization.  Presently, she is a Legal Intern with the Safe Horizon Domestic Violence Law Project.  Safe Horizon provides direct services to victims of abuse who are otherwise unable to obtain legal representation.

Supported by Guaranteed Summer Funding, this summer she will be interning at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF).  In light of recent judicial setbacks and attacks on the voting rights of people of color, she will be working in LDF’s Political Participation Group.  Bringing together her interests in race and gender, she will also be working in the Economic Justice Group, joining LDF’s fight for fairness and equal opportunities for African-American men and women in the economy.

NOLAN THOMAS / Morningside Muckraker


Bassam Khawaja

IMG_1689Bassam is the face of Columbia’s Human Rights!

He currently interns with Human Rights Watch in their International Justice program, working on advocacy around accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity with a focus on the International Criminal Court. Last semester he worked with the Legal Aid Society to defend immigrants facing removal from the US.

Last summer he worked for Human Rights Watch in Beirut documenting human rights violations in Syria and Lebanon. This summer he is planning to be in Yemen doing refugee protection work. Prior to law school he worked with the Advocates for Human Rights in Minneapolis, and the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs in Beirut.

He’s also the incoming Editor-in-Chief of the Columbia Human Rights Law Review, currently serves as co-president of Rightslink, and previously volunteered with the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project and the Domestic Violence Courtroom Advocates Project.

NELSON HUA / Morningside Muckraker


Katherine Park

pilf-katherineKatherine has poured her heart and soul into public interest work from the moment she arrived at the school, and I think she more than anyone symbolizes the motivating spirit of public service on campus. She’s worked in a direct services capacity consistently while at law school, working at The Legal Aid Society, The Bronx Defenders, the New York Asian Women’s Center, and is currently representing detained asylum seekers in the Mass Incarceration/Immigrants’ Rights clinic.

She selflessly and quietly gives so much to help other people. Katherine is always drawn not only to use her talents to help others, but to help those overlooked by others. Katherine’s natural tendency is to focus her efforts on the hard cases; the people unlikely to win, the people with criminal records, and the people who otherwise have a hard time finding pro bono support.

Katherine is also tireless. When other people slow down, she seems to find a way to speed up. To use an illustrative example, just this past week she was at an immigration detention center wrapping up a major project that had required multiple all-nighters. Rather than rest, she actually struck up a conversation with a family of another detained immigrant, and ended up agreeing to help another client, solely on her own initiative.

Katherine’s quiet dedication has been personally inspiring to me and is incredibly important for the people she helps and the culture of the law school.

NOLAN THOMAS / Morningside Muckraker


Carrie Tirrell

pilf-carrieCarrie has been tireless in supporting the public interest endeavors of Columbia Law.  She has been active in public interest projects with student groups, founding two public interest law projects for Outlaws and serving as their public interest chair.  She is co-organizer and VP of the PILF Auction, which I know is one of the most important fund-raising events of the year for the organization.

Carrie has also interned and volunteered with a host of different national and international public interest organizations, focusing especially on violence against women and animal rights, including the Human Rights Defender of the Republic of Armenia’s office and Battered Immigrant Women’s Project and Contested Divorces involving domestic violence at Sanctuary.  She has participated in multiple projects that focus on domestic violence, and pours time and energy into these projects above and beyond the established standards.  Carrie has helped organize and participated in lobby days for the League of Humane Voters of New York State.

Carrie is extremely driven, and I have never known her to give up on something, or even to let off the throttle, once she undertakes the responsibility.

NOLAN THOMAS / Morningside Muckraker

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