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Defying the odds: flexible learning key to getting my LLM

“I'm very lucky to be able to do a job that I love and it was the ability to continue to gain essential field experience while studying for my LLM that has enabled me to achieve this.”

Natalie, LLM graduate
Natalie, our LLM graduate, tells us about her experience being the first female in her family to go to university.

Tell us about the influences that inspired you to get a Higher Education?

I was the first generation in my family to attend university and the first female. My grandfather arrived in England as a teenager after leaving Sicily following the war and he worked as a coalminer and later as a factory worker. My mother is one of five siblings and she left high school to work full time as an office worker. She raised me as a single mother and always encouraged me to take the opportunities that she never had growing up. She always saw education as the key to unlocking a fulfilling and successful life and always encouraged me to attend university. With her encouragement and support I was accepted at Oxford University to study English Language and Literature. Oxford was an eye-opening experience for me, and it helped me see just how wide and varied my career options could be. 

What is your advice to women who are seeking to further themselves or their career through study? 

Further study can be a scary prospect and requires a significant investment of time and money. When I started my LLM, I was worried that I wouldn't be able to find enough time to study and that it would be difficult without face-to-face contact. I was also concerned that living in Myanmar - where a constant supply of electricity and access to the internet could not always be take for granted - would make things difficult, but the LLM programme included all the materials that I needed, including journal articles and case law. 

As women, we tend to have lots of commitments to juggle, and so we can sometimes neglect our own aspirations. Of course, distance learning is hard work - it takes discipline and commitment, but it also opens so many doors. Further study allows you to develop your expertise in a subject that you are passionate about and enriches your practical experience. 

My advice for any women who are feeling hesitant about further study is to never underestimate what you are capable of. If you study something you are passionate about, you will be motivated to open up the books when you get home from a long day at work, or to set the alarm an hour early so that you can read a case before breakfast. You can set your own pace for studying and sitting examinations and can spread the cost of the course, making it more accessible to women who have other commitments. 

Natalie training activists and lawyers in Mandalay

Why did you choose to study independently, and what has enabled you to do so?

Working in Cambodia really opened up my career horizons. I had never considered a career outside of domestic legal practice before but the work that I did at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights - documenting human rights violations, strategic litigation for human rights defenders and monitoring the trial of the former Khmer Rouge leadership - was incredibly rewarding and I knew straight away that I wanted to focus on these areas. Working in international development and human rights is very competitive and so a master's degree is essential. I wasn't in a financial position to study full time and I was enjoying my work so the chance to study with the University of London as a distance learning student appealed to me. I was able to carry on working overseas and gain an LLM at the same time; the topics that I was studying were directly relevant to my work and the knowledge I gained from the LLM helped me to understand the theories and ideas that underpin human rights. I was very lucky that Justice Base, the NGO I was working for in Myanmar while I studied with the University of London, was extremely supportive and allowed me to work flexibly to accommodate my studies. 

The flexibility of the University of London LLM allowed me to continue to work and gain experience at an NGO in Myanmar at the same time as studying, allowing me to see the practical implications of the subject I was studying and to use my knowledge to strengthen the projects I was working on. 

What are your aspirations with your studies and career?

Working overseas has allowed me to gain practical experience in the context of criminal justice and human rights. Seeing first-hand the ways in which women and girls are particularly vulnerable to abuse and rights violations pushed me to develop my expertise in this area. After completing my LLM and working for UNDP for two years, I set up a legal and development consultancy with two other lawyers where I have continued to focus on access to justice for women. We have recently received funding to conduct a study on the use of informal and customary justice systems in Myanmar which will help to inform policy formulation on access to justice in Myanmar. After spending the last seven years living in Cambodia, Myanmar and the Netherlands, I have just accepted a new job and will be returning to the UK where I will be working as Senior Legal Officer for a women's human rights charity in London, working on projects in the UK and Commonwealth. I'm very lucky to be able to do a job that I love and it was the ability to continue to gain essential field experience while studying for my LLM that has enabled me to achieve this. 

Natalie studied our LLM in Myanmar, graduated in 2015 and is interviewed here by Kim Kontos, Student Experience Manager. Find out more about Natalie’s background and how her studies empowered her path to defy all odds on the Leading Women blog.

Natalie with UNDP colleagues in Taunggyi
Natalie with UNDP colleagues in Taunggyi