As a Tibetan middle school student in Nepal, Kunchok Dolma ’21 overheard a cousin talking about what lawyers do, and she saw how few there were in her community. That set her trajectory to graduating from the University of Virginia School of Law on May 23.
“When I was young, I thought I would become an international human rights lawyer and fight for the cause of Tibet, fight for my community and work for my community,” she said. “So that’s what prompted me to want to become a lawyer as a kid.”
Most recently hailing from Queens, New York, Dolma grew up in Nepal with her family as refugees from Chinese occupation of Tibet. Dolma moved to the United States after completing high school. Dolma’s single mother — “my friend and my role model” — had no formal schooling but instilled in her children the importance of education and lifting up their communities.
“I come from a line of ferocious Tibetan women,” she said, “and I try to keep that spirit in me when I do my work.”
Before law school, as a New York City Urban Fellow working in city government, Dolma — who speaks Tibetan, Nepali and Hindi — created a community program for adult English language learners. She later led program rebranding efforts, renaming it We Speak NYC. She helped create seven videos and coursework on topics such as mental health, workforce development and elder care. She won a New York Emmy for producing a video demonstrating a working couple’s fight for employee benefits.
“That’s when I realized that I have a very strong interest in immigrant advocacy,” Dolma said, “but also, I that am good at community organizing and outreach.”
Because of language barriers, immigrants often face challenges, such as filling out complex forms. Those mistakes can “delay the processing of your immigration application and that happens in immigrant communities a lot,” she said. “Every form is expensive; you have to then save extra money [to hire] an immigration lawyer, and that’s not always affordable for working class families.”
She still helps her mother when it comes to writing the bills or talking to the doctor.
Dolma received a bachelor’s from the Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York and an M.Phil. from the University of Oxford.
At UVA Law, the Ritter Scholar has been a student coordinator for the Human Rights Program, a national liaison for the National Lawyers Guild chapter and a student in the International Human Rights Clinic. She has served as president of Women of Color and been a research assistant for Professor Camilo Sánchez, the clinic’s director, and visiting professor H. Timothy Lovelace ’06.
Dolma is a recipient of the Raven Award, a Dalai Lama Foundation Graduate Scholarship, and an Arnold & Porter Diversity and Inclusion Scholarship. She also serves as board president of New York Tibetan Service Center.
She said her work with the Human Rights Program has reinforced her commitment to human rights. She added that she most enjoyed helping Sánchez organize events for the program, focused on domestic as well as international human rights. A personal highlight was inviting Lobsang Sangay, regent of the Central Tibetan Administration, to deliver the program’s spring lecture at the Law School in February 2020.
Through the International Human Rights Clinic, Dolma and fellow clinic student Rachel Davidson Raycraft ’20 helped shape new U.N. guidance on the relationship between advances in science and human rights. In 2020, the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights published the first general comment on the subject and incorporated virtually all recommendations from the students.
“The Human Rights Clinic, and working on the U.N. report in particular, gave me an appreciation for U.N. processes and how laypersons can organize to advocate for change in these seemingly dense networks,” Dolma said. “It also made me appreciate the importance of voicing our ideas in these spaces which are otherwise dominated by powerful nation-states and large organizations.”
Sánchez said Dolma reached out to him to help organize the Human Rights Study Project’s trip to Nepal, using her personal story to help organizers understand, respect and appreciate Nepali and Tibetan cultures. He called her a team player in the clinic — she was always ready and willing to take the lead on group assignments — and said Dolma upholds UVA Law’s human-centered values.
“Kunchok is one of the best students I have ever had the pleasure of teaching,” Sánchez said. “In addition to her academic success, Kunchok is also reflective, thoughtful and humble. She believes that the most important outcome of her education is not a diploma, but instead the opportunities in which she can use her knowledge and experience to improve herself and to give back to her community.”
Being involved with the Law School’s student affinity groups has been especially important to Dolma. During her tenure as president of Women of Color, the group started so-called “circle of love” dinners to facilitate conversation and foster community. She said having members share stories about themselves was especially important. The group held a stand-alone event on storytelling.
“Finding the power in our voices and our stories, that was really crucial to the work we did,” she said.
After graduating, she will work in New York at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter and Hampton as an associate in the litigation department.
Dolma hopes to be involved with international human rights law or immigration law in the future.
“I think for me my identity as a working-class person, as an immigrant and as a Tibetan are very vital,” she said. “If I could [put] my degree to some use for these communities that would mean a lot to me.”
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.