When Leti Volpp entered law school her plan was to get her degree so she could spend her life in the "trenches" through a legal career representing immigrant workers. However, she realized by the end of her second year that her career plans were shifting.
"The Report alumni magazine published a piece profiling students with summer human rights internships, and in it I was quoted as saying that I was thinking about being a law professor, so already I had changed," she recalls.
"Professors Jim Liebman, Steve Ellman, Mark Barenberg, and Martha Fineman all made me feel like I had an important perspective to share, early in my law school career. Mentorship is incredibly important to becoming a professor - obviously you need references, but you also need encouragement," says Prof. Volpp.
Further encouragement was gleaned from Professors Kimberlé Crenshaw, Kendall Thomas, and Patricia Williams. All leaders in critical race theory, they encouraged the academic aspirations of Prof. Volpp, now an associate professor of law at American University's Washington College of Law. Serving as a second-year research assistant to Prof. Crenshaw, she enrolled in her seminar on the "intersectionality of race and gender."
"Prof. Crenshaw told us there was so little writing on this topic that we needed to ‘write publishable papers into the void,'" recalls Prof. Volpp. "I wrote a paper on Asian women and the ‘cultural defense' that was published in the Harvard Women's Law Journal. This message - that you are capable of writing important work - is one that I also give to my students."
Her passion for public interest law meant that the halls of academia would wait a few more years for her arrival. With stops at a federal clerkship, the ACLU, the Department of Justice, Equal Rights Advocates, and the National Employment Law Project, she worried about leaving the "trenches" for the "ivory tower." Yet, she says, "I realized I was more interested in engaging in these questions as an academic, through writing about how knowledge is produced about subordinated communities."
Published in journals such as the Columbia Law Review, the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, Citizenship Studies, and the Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities, her scholarship focuses on the relationship of migration, culture and identity, and on theories of citizenship. The recipient of two Rockefeller Foundation Humanities fellowships and a MacArthur Foundation Individual Research and Writing grant, she is spending the spring semester at the Center for Ideas and Society at the University of California at Riverside as part of an interdisciplinary group researching modernity, humanism, and globalization.
"I love being an academic," she says. "I feel very stretched, and I'm constantly learning."
She adds, "I started writing at a time when few legal academics were addressing questions of Asian-Americans and the law, and just before a large increase in the number of Asian-American students entering law school. Part of what has encouraged me to write is the knowledge that my scholarship has helped students who identify with disenfranchised communities feel a sense of agency in a context that can otherwise make them feel very marginal."
For Prof. Volpp, this is a way to pass on the encouragement she herself once received - to be not just a recipient of, but a conduit for the transformative process of the academic life.