Passion in the Law: Interning in Costa Rica with an Unexpected Ending

By: Brandon Pierce

Many law students are not sure which legal path they wish to pursue.  Until recently, I was one of those students, searching for my passion within the law.  Fortunately, I found that passion 5,000 miles away nestled in a Costa Rican rainforest.

THE REPUBLIC OF COSTA RICA

Home of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Costa Rica is a pluricultural and multiethnic country with a diversity of scenery, languages, and people.  [1]  But with that diversity comes an assortment of communal problems with generational impacts.  Those problems need attention, which is why I decided to work in such a diverse country.

Brandon on the judges’ bench at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Brandon on the judges’ bench at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

DIVING IN HEADFIRST

I had the privilege this summer to intern with the C.R. Office of the Ombudsman, a public institution that protects the rights of Costa Rica’s citizens.  My assignments dealt with citizens’ rights in four areas: (1) education, (2) disability, (3) LGBTQ relations, and (4) minority groups, e.g. afro-descendants, indigenous tribes, etc.  My first day on the job included meeting with community leaders and attending sessions to educate citizens on the laws that impact them.  Work within these areas included visiting rural towns on high mountain peaks, interviewing foreign diplomats, and even sitting before the seven judges of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

THE UNEXPECTED “AHA!” MOMENT

Costa Rica consists of eight indigenous groups that inhabit twenty-four territories and utilize seven legally recognized languages.  It wasn’t until I reached the small indigenous community of Shiroles that I realized the power of passion.  As my colleagues and I found ourselves trekking through a muddy Costa Rican rainforest, I never expected to find that “aha!” moment that inspired my future career path.

A bridge leading into the Shiroles Community.

A bridge leading into the Shiroles Community.

Man-made houses, handwoven clothing, and raw nature made up the community I visited.  Instantaneously upon arrival, community leaders, students, and parents assembled to hear our group.  These individuals were concerned for the future of their community.  They wanted to voice their concerns on the threat of losing their culture, the contamination of their natural resources, and the government’s illegal deprivation of their land.  My job was to document their stories and educate them on the law that protects their culture.  Their stories involved matters we take for granted or may never experience.  In many instances, indigenous students are prohibited from using their native language in school, many domestic violence disputes go unreported, and agricultural companies pollute the natural water sources used to nourish communities.  Most indigenous communities inhabit their lands without legal title, that is, a government-issued document that demonstrate they own land.  Their lack of title is reasonable considering they have inhabited these lands for centuries, even before any form of government existed.

This lack of legal title makes these communities vulnerable to unlawful foreclosures.  Consequently, foreign corporations, tourists, and even the government, has illegally taken land from indigenous territories to develop more infrastructure.  This information we gathered was used to draft a complaint against the government.  Most of my initial interactions with the Shiroles people consisted of me speaking and receiving confused, unwelcoming stares in return.  Though discouraging at times, I continued to work with the people and tried to make some sort of connection.  After working for a week in the community, something remarkable happened on the last day.

Brandon interacting with members of the Shiroles community.

Brandon interacting with members of the Shiroles community.

That day a student pulled me aside.  He explained to me the struggles of growing up feeling this his government does not care about his culture, ancestral history, or rights as a living being.  In the end, the student thanked me for being “a voice for us who have no voice.”  I was speechless.  The gratitude and satisfaction in knowing that I helped make a difference in someone’s life stays with me today.  With that humble encounter, I realized how I wanted to move my legal career forward.  It was there that I determined I would be a human rights attorney, a voice for those without a voice.

ADVICE FOR CAREER PASSION SEEKERS

Oprah Winfrey once said, “Passion is energy.  Feel the power that comes from focusing on what excites you.”

This euphoric quotation informs us all that our energy is derived from our passion.  If you believe the author, you would agree that without passion there can be no energy.   In a field that requires long work hours, such as law, there is undoubtedly a great amount of energy required.  Therefore, finding passion in one’s work is imperative.

I was privileged to sit with indigenous people, converse with community elders and sing with school children.  I was so blessed by those encounters while interning abroad and received more than I think I gave to them.

Brandon touring the Shiroles indigenous community.

Brandon touring the Shiroles indigenous community.

I discovered that we are more alike than different, full of compassion rather than hate, and full of peace, not violence.  Through this internship, I discovered that human rights can awaken us to the power and worth of our own lives.  Then, it is our responsibility to use that power to fulfill our life’s purpose.

Ask yourself:  What job excites me?  What is the one thing I can’t stop thinking about?  An even harder question: If I had to do it for free, would I still do it?  Your passion lays in the answers to those questions.  My experiences in the Shiroles community helped to find my answers.  What will it take for you to find yours?

As you step onto your mark, and get set to find your career passion, there is only one thing left to say as you take the first step.  “Go!”

One Response to Passion in the Law: Interning in Costa Rica with an Unexpected Ending

  1. Carol Naples says:

    Brandon – I love that you love my country so much, and that it has opened you up to so many new experiences and passions. PURA VIDA.

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