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First Generation Professionals Fellow Kelsang Dolma L’24 eager to cultivate community

November 15, 2021

Dolma L’24 is the first Tibetan on record to attend the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School.

First Generation Professionals (FGP) Fellow Kelsang Dolma L’24 has made a point throughout her academic and professional life to emphasize the importance of community – and she intends to continue to do so as a law student at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School.

First Generation Professional Fellowship journey

The FGP Fellowship, which is administered by the Center on Professionalism and supported by a generous gift from Law School Board of Advisors member David Silk L’88, aids FGP law students in honing valuable skills that will help them to succeed as legal scholars and professionals. As an FGP Fellow, Dolma is looking forward to the professional networking opportunities and social connections the Fellowship will help her to form.

“There’s a natural camaraderie that emerges in coming from similar backgrounds,” Dolma said. “I’m looking to find a community where I can feel comfortable. I hope I can walk away with a group of friends and also get advice on how to navigate the nebulous law career path.”

For Dolma, who is one of four FGP Fellows in the Class of 2024 and nine total across the Law School, being a First Generation student is not new; she was a first-generation college student as well. Moreover, Dolma also holds the honor of being the first Tibetan student to graduate from Yale College, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts in Ethnicity, Race, and Migration. She is also the first Tibetan on record to attend the Law School at Penn.

“It meant a lot to my community that I was able to go to Yale, and I really want to be someone who can be a mentor for others, especially for Asians who don’t come from majorly-represented Asian ethnic groups,” Dolma said. “There’s a misconception that Asian Americans are the most successful racial group, but when you really look at the subcategories of Asian Americans, such as Tibetan, Hmong, or Vietnamese Americans for example, it’s not as clear cut. That is the problem with the category of ‘Asian’ — the monolithic title leads to the preclusion of serious questions and support for underprivileged Asian groups. It is important for me to be a role model for other Asian groups who aren’t fairly represented by Asian leaders.”

Dolma was born in a Tibetan refugee settlement in India. In the early 1990s, the United States added a provision to the Immigration Act of 1990 that granted 1,000 visas to Tibetan Refugees. Dolma’s father obtained one of those visas, and when she was three years old, Dolma and her family moved to America and settled in Minnesota, where Dolma grew up.

“My father, who never had the opportunity for any schooling, always emphasized education to me. He told me growing up that he wanted me to be working with my head in my career, rather than with my hands,” Dolma said.

Forging a legal career path

Dolma first became interested in attending law school while she was an undergraduate. During her sophomore year of college, Dolma joined the Lowenstein Human Rights Project at Yale Law School, wherein she and a team conducted legal research on behalf of a Christian Pakistani client who was being persecuted under the country’s blasphemy laws. Dolma loved the work and was thrilled when she learned that the client and his family were able to successfully obtain asylum in South Korea, thanks in part to her group’s research and advocacy. She also had the opportunity to take courses in Constitutional Law and legal writing that reinforced her conviction to pursue law school.

Dolma spent much of her time as an undergraduate advocating for greater representation of Tibetans and assisting in public service organizations. In college, she served leadership roles through the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project, the Yale Refugee Project, and the Yale Minnesota Club. Dolma also founded the Himalayan Students Association at Yale. Markedly, she spearheaded the creation of a Yale College course, “Tibet: An Enduring Civilization,” taught by her mentor, the late Professor Charles Hill L’61.

“The Yale courses that currently center around imperialism are Western-centric, which is important, but the study of imperialism is incomplete without confronting the long-standing and ongoing impacts of East Asian imperialism,” Dolma said. “It was one of my undergrad goals to push for a course on Tibet at Yale College, because it had never been taught before but needed to be taught.”

Dolma emphasized the impact that Professor Hill had on her career as both an academic collaborator and early guide as she explored the idea of attending law school.

“He believed in my course, and he helped make my dreams a reality,” she said. “That meant a lot to me.”

Honoring and representing her Tibetan heritage remains of paramount importance to Dolma. Prior to law school, Dolma spent several years working in international policy. As the special assistant to the Representative in the Office of Tibet in Washington, D.C., the de facto Tibetan embassy, Dolma drafted speeches for the Representative and aided in the passage of the Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2020. Dolma has also contributed several articles to Foreign Policy Magazine.

Regarding her career path, Dolma hopes to experience a range of opportunities. She maintains an interest in U.S.-Tibet and U.S.-China policy, and she would also like to clerk for a judge and work for a law firm. Moreover, Dolma is eager to delve into Constitutional Law — specifically, she wants to study the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom. For Dolma, the freedom to practice whichever religion one chooses, though often highly politicized, is a critical and non-partisan right that she values deeply.

“I am interested in studying religious freedom, which is a topic widely perceived to be a right-wing, Christian-centric issue, but in fact it’s a growing global issue that cuts across race, class, gender, and caste,” Dolma said. “I don’t think a lot of people recognize that.”

Dolma is excited to continue to build on her policy-sector background as she continues to take classes that help her learn how to use the law in real-world scenarios. She is especially eager for the chance to tailor her education in her 2L and 3L years, when she will have the opportunity to choose from the Law School’s vast array of curricular offerings.

“I’m looking forward to seeing how I can apply law to practical experiences,” Dolma said, “and also to meet different people who are smart and ambitious.

Learn more about the Law School’s commitment to supporting First Generation success.