All Online Exclusives

The Advocate

Kristen Popham ’20 is a law student dedicated to advancing human rights

May 1, 2024
By Claire De Lisle M.B.A. ’21

Kristen Popham ’20 was in the airport in Geneva last November, on her way to make a presentation to the Human Rights Council of the United Nations about discrimination against women and Muslims in the Central African Republic.

Also in the airport was a French-speaking LGBTQ+ activist from the Central African Republic, anxiously preparing to give a similar presentation to the UN. In a chance encounter with Popham, he shared that he wasn’t sure what the council required. Popham, who speaks fluent French, immediately jumped in to assist.

Not only did she help him with his presentation, she also arranged for his medical care in Geneva so he could receive treatment for his HIV. Upon learning he was in danger if he returned to his home country, she helped connect him to asylum resources in the European Union. They are still in touch.

That’s just the kind of person Popham is — while getting her law degree at Columbia Law School, she’s also actively working to change the world and going out of her way to improve the lives of individuals.

“This total chance encounter taught me so much about the risks and difficulties of advocating for human rights. It reaffirmed my desire to change systems that are inaccessible and that reinforce social stratification,” she says.

For her efforts to further gender equality around the world, Popham was awarded the prestigious Ruth Bader Ginsburg Memorial Scholarship by the New York State Bar Association on April 6. Watch her acceptance speech.

“Kristen’s work ethic and dedication to helping others is impressive,” said Richard Lewis, president of the New York State Bar Association, in the organization’s press release. “She is truly living up to the late Justice Ginsburg’s legacy.”

Popham hadn’t always wanted to study law. She grew up dancing competitively and was accepted into the Royal Academy of Dance in London. But, at age 12, she received a diagnosis that would change her life and prevent her from dancing: juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. The condition is painful, but she also sees it as a pivotal point in her life that pointed her toward studying law.

“My disability has been a lens through which I can develop a radical empathy for other people in the world. It’s made me excited about pushing the boundaries of what people believe is possible in civil rights and how we can accommodate each other,” she says.

When looking for a college, Popham, who is from Chantilly, Virginia, quickly found a home at William & Mary.

“I remember touring William & Mary and feeling this romantic notion of how smart everyone was, how unapologetically creative and quirky. People were totally themselves,” she says.

A government and French & Francophone studies double major, Popham took two courses during her first year that crystallized her interest in learning about how the law works: her COLL100 freshman seminar, “Courts and Culture,” with teaching professor Jackson Sasser ’98, M.A. ’08, Ph.D. ’15; and an independent study on race and the law in Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” with Simon Stow, Marshall Professor of Government and American Studies.

Soon, she was attending Stow’s COLL400 senior seminar on “To Kill a Mockingbird” as a freshman and collaborating on his research. She even co-authored a book chapter with him for “The Cold War and American Life” about the condensed Reader’s Digest version of “To Kill a Mockingbird” that was published during the Cold War era.

“The opportunity launched me into thinking about social, legal and political questions in a more complex and critical way,” Popham says.

Always one to stay busy, she also was vice president of the Mock Trial Team, an intern in the Office of University Communications and a Pulitzer Center Reporting Fellow. Meanwhile, she was advocating for students with disabilities on campus. She collaborated with Kelly Crace, associate vice president for health & wellness, on increasing services for students with chronic illness through the McLeod Tyler Wellness Center.

Studying abroad at the University of Montpellier in France in the fall of her junior year introduced her to navigating the health care system in another culture and language. She used these skills again after graduation, when she returned to France to teach English to youth in the suburbs of Paris as part of a Fulbright Scholarship she received with the help of William & Mary faculty. Throughout her time in France, she received monthly biologic infusions at a hospital, spending hours in infusion rooms talking to the other patients in French.

“Getting this international perspective on disability and the barriers to accessing care for disabled women and people of all different identities, all over the world, gave me this energy to change systems in the U.S.,” she says.

Popham also led a student organization that visited residents in a local juvenile detention center, providing a supportive community for them.

“I have two brothers who I missed so much, so this was a blast, but it also motivated me to look more closely at the way the law treated them,” she says. “We talk all the time about the school to prison pipeline, but there’s also a disability to prison pipeline, where people with disabilities are disproportionately incarcerated.”

At Columbia, she participates in the Suspension Representation Project, where she represents high school students at their suspension hearings. She also works with the Parole Advocacy Project to help incarcerated individuals in New York prepare for their parole hearings. One of her clients was released in April after 10 years behind bars.

Popham is the founder and president of Columbia’s Disabled Law Students Association and is in the top 2% of her class. She was attracted to Columbia Law School’s strong international human rights program. As a member of the school’s Human Rights Clinic, she is working with nongovernmental organizations that bring attention to discrimination against Muslims and women in the Central African Republic. Part of her role is facilitating the NGOs use of UN mechanisms, which is how she presented to the United Nations last year on human rights abuses in that country.

Her senior thesis at William & Mary for her French & Francophone studies major focused on postcolonial political activism in French-speaking countries. It was in that project, working with faculty member Magali Compan, that she first researched postcolonial francophone countries like the Central African Republic.

“Studying French, researching and thinking critically about the way the law works and doesn’t work for different people … that all came from my work at William & Mary,” she says.

Popham hopes to become a civil rights impact litigator — using litigation as a strategic tool to move legal theories forward, such as by choosing cases that represent larger legal questions.

“I want to apply legal theories in new and innovative ways. I want to represent affected communities, but not lose the one-on-one client interaction. Civil rights impact litigation would allow me to work at the intersection of disability, sex and race and fight injustice,” she says.

With her bright future ahead of her, she still looks back fondly on her time at William & Mary.

“Being away has made me appreciate it even more, that there is this place where you can be obsessed with learning and everyone around you is so excited for you. There’s something really special about William & Mary people.”