During her time at Richmond, Catherine Matthews, ’11, became a passionate advocate for human rights, and created her own independent studies major that allowed her to get a broad overview of human rights around the globe.

Three years after graduation, she finds herself immersed in one of the largest human rights issues facing our country today: immigration. Matthews works as the litigation project coordinator for the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) in Chicago, an organization that is dedicated to ensuring human rights protections and access to justice for all immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.

“I work with a team of three to five attorneys and serve as their primary paralegal,” she says. “I’m not only maintaining databases and project files, but I’m also providing legal support on fact finding and filing administrative complaints.”

Her work allows her the opportunity to work with individual clients doing affidavits, writing legal briefs, and coming up with evidence to support each case. “We file appeals for clients where there may have been a legal or factual error in their case at a lower level court, and we take on cases where we think there was a wrongful decision issued,” Matthews says. “Winning cases for individuals who thought they had no chance after they had been denied once or twice, seeing how gratifying it is for them, and having the opportunity to keep fighting their case is pretty incredible.”

And while Matthews feels NIJC’s direct service work is incredibly important, she chose to work on the litigation project because of the “potential for a really large national impact,” she says. She cites the example of a recent civil rights complaint NIJC and other organizations filed with the Department of Homeland Security alleging that U.S. Customs and Border Protection regularly obstructs access to the asylum process for individuals who may qualify for protection. “I’ve been working not only with clients and writing up affidavits about particular situations, but also digging more into this issue and how widespread it is,” she says.

Matthews publicizes NIJC’s current cases and successes in litigation on their website and blogs about recent precedential immigration cases that come out of the appeals. “We can try to shape and change a lot of the problems in our immigration system, and that’s one of the most satisfying pieces of my work,” she says.

Matthews says that her time at Richmond, particularly its flexible curriculum, allowed her to get to where she is today. After completing a major in LAIS, she designed her own global human rights program that included classes ranging from anthropology, to biology, to geography, and even an independent study where she worked with a law professor on an international case. She studied abroad in Spain and Argentina, but found her semester studying abroad in Kenya to be a particularly moving experience. “I studied with a program that was focused on community health and development, and that, in large part, solidified my interest in human rights,” she says.

She advises current students to try everything. “There are all these opportunities,” she says. “Take them and use them to get better insight into people. Apart from taking regular classes and requirements in a major, extend yourself into other areas as well.”