The influence of William & Mary Assistant Professor of Government and human rights advocate Kelebogile Zvobgo has materialized in many ways in her students, from the research and advocacy at the university’s Global Research Institute (GRI) and International Justice Lab (IJL) to shared authorship of articles in peer-reviewed journals and major media outlets like the Washington Post, Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy magazines.
But in case she didn’t fully grasp the depth of her impact, a group of her students took matters into their own hands.
That her students nominated her for the United Nations Association National Capital Area (UNA-NCA) Emerging Human Rights Leader Award was an honor in its own right, says Zvobgo. But she did win the award and was introduced by two recent W&M graduates at a ceremony at the United States Capitol on Dec. 9.
“When I first heard that they had nominated me, I couldn’t believe it,” Zvobgo said. “It’s a nice thing to hear, but I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, have I been so formative in your experience that in your free time –which William & Mary students do not have – you have gone through this process of identifying an opportunity for my work to be recognized and have written a nomination letter and even contributed to the writing of the award presentation?’”
William & Mary alumnus Thomas Liu ’22 is on the board of directors at the UNA-NCA, and he reached out to fellow alumnus and friend Nathan Liu ’22 about submitting a nomination for Zvobgo.
“Since I only graduated from William & Mary this past May and have had multiple interactions with Dr. Zvobgo through the GRI, she was at the top of my mind,” Thomas Liu said. “Thus, I asked my friend Nathan Liu, a student of her International Justice Lab, to work with his lab mates to do the honor of submitting the nomination.”
Nathan Liu said he worked with a large group of IJL fellows to craft the nomination.
“It was quite hard to condense all the great things about Professor Z into the short nomination, but we tried to focus on her impact on us, her students and mentees,” Nathan Liu said.
Thomas and Nathan shared duties of introducing Zvobgo at the awards ceremony, where she was feted along with Yale Law School Professor Harold Koh, American diplomat Jason Mack and Kenyan social activist Kakenya Ntaiya.
Speaking of her colleagues, who she describes as “luminaries in academia, nonprofits, and policy,” Zvobgo added, “They’re human rights leaders. I’m just emerging.”
Zvobgo is the director of W&M’s IJL, which she founded in 2019 to conduct research on human rights, transitional justice and international law and courts. “I think I joked in my speech, ‘No pressure. I am still emerging, so I have time yet to make a big mark on this world.’”
To Nathan Liu and other W&M students, Zvobgo has made a significant mark on their work.
When introducing Zvobgo, Nathan Liu said, “When preparing these remarks, I asked my lab mates, and we all agree: Dr. Zvobgo has taught us so much from research methods to navigating academia. Perhaps even more important, she taught us such lessons as these: Build up others. Don’t wait for someone to give you a title. Give credit to and celebrate underrepresented voices.”
The UNA-NCA award “definitely put some wind in my sails and provided some encouragement and motivation to continue the work that I’ve been doing,” said Zvobgo, who once dreamed of being a UN diplomat. But she adds that conducting research and publishing with students throughout their college experience, some of whom start before they step foot on campus as freshmen, and seeing them elevate their work in their journeys to be independent researchers or human rights-minded in other fields is the greatest reward.
She mentions students like Zoha Siddiqui ’23, who recently became the first William & Mary student to receive the prestigious Mitchell Scholarship to study in Northern Ireland.
“The Emerging Human Rights Leader Award is really significant to me,” Zvobgo said.
“I see myself as a scholar, a teacher and an advocate, and I try in my work to support or to create new scholarship on questions on human rights, transitional justice, international law and courts to teach students about these topics, but also to be engaged in my local and international communities and helping to advance human rights, whether that’s fundraising for different organizations or participating in protests, demonstrations and marches or equipping, in a very practical way, students with toolkits and frameworks for engaging in the political process and advancing human rights. So it was a great honor to be recognized in this way.”
Zvobgo says she is honored to be recognized by UNA-NCA, an organization that advocates and supports the work of the United Nations, the world’s foremost intergovernmental organization dedicated to advancing international peace, security, human right, and development.
“It doesn’t get better than that,” she said.
But she adds that the award is as much about her as it is about the work her students and peers have done at William & Mary.
“I’m not a lab director without having these fellows, right? I’m not a teacher without having students. I’m not a scholar without having peers with whom I am trying to answer questions of concern and urgency in human rights and transitional justice and international law and courts,” Zvobgo said.
“So much of what I do is a collective endeavor, and I hope, through recognitions like this, that we’re able to continue to build out this work, this teaching, this activism and importantly, this lab. The International Justice Lab will begin its fifth year in the fall, which I can’t believe. I’m really excited for the next five years that will take the lab to a decade, doing more good scholarship, continuing to communicate with folks involved in foreign policy and domestic policy and also with the public at large.”
Nathan Warters, Communications Specialist