May 6, 2011 — Less than 24 hours after Erin Houlihan wrapped up her last law school exam, she was in Iraq discussing women's rights at an international conference.
Houlihan will graduate from the University of Virginia School of Law on May 22, though it's easy to mistake her for a practicing human rights lawyer. In her role advising Iraqi officials on issues like women's and minority rights, she has been to the country four times in the past year as the Charlotte Ann Temple Fellow at the Institute for International Law and Human Rights, an organization based in Washington, D.C.
"I work directly with parliamentarians, I've sat with ministers, I've met the speaker of parliament, I've marked up draft legislation – I have direct input, and I can't see where else I'd ever have the opportunity to do that," Houlihan said. "I wouldn't trade it for anything. Who else gets to do something like this? I'm incredibly lucky."
The Missoula, Mont., native followed a winding path to international human rights law. After majoring in theater for two years at New York University, she transferred to U.Va. and studied psychology as a pre-med. Then she took a couple of classes in philosophy of law and juvenile justice.
"I just started to see that this was so much more interesting to me in terms of affecting policies that I disagreed with or rights that I felt were not protected appropriately. It was this complete 180 in my senior year," she said.
Intending to go to law school eventually, she applied to U.Va. and Teach for America. When she was accepted by both, she deferred law school, and for two years taught special education courses at a Central Los Angeles high school in which racial tensions were high.
"It was an incredibly humbling experience, but it was good and I loved my kids," she said.
Exhausted from working hard at the school and earning an M.A. in special education from Loyola Marymount, Houlihan deferred law school again to teach English as a second language in Istanbul, Turkey, at a time when a threatened military coup, an influx of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees and Turkey's bid to enter the European Union mired the region in controversy.
Under these influences, "I got interested in politics," Houlihan said. When she returned to Virginia to study law, she also began the dual-degree program in politics, from which she will earn a master's degree in August.
"It's been really helpful in terms of perspective with the international human rights work, especially with Iraq, because basically it's institution-building and democratization at this point."
After her first year in law school, Houlihan worked at the Institute for International Law and Human Rights, where she examined draft Iraqi laws and researched the best international practices for structuring government policies such as social security and welfare for women.
"I became familiar with some specific topics" such as women's and minority rights, the newly created Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights and a project to develop institutional capacities to strengthen the rule of law, Houlihan said. When an institute fellow couldn't travel to Iraq, Houlihan, who had maintained contact with the organization through pro bono projects, was able to step in. She made her first trip in October.
"It was just a fortuitous thing," she said. "It was really exciting – I got to see where we were with all these projects that had been ongoing for a very long time and got tasked with more projects."
Houlihan traveled to Iraq over fall break, in December and at the start of the spring semester; the last trip, which lasted three weeks, proved to be the most difficult to juggle with her legal studies. She met with professors to get their blessing and viewed several classes from abroad via Skype.
While there, she also learned the realities of working in postwar Iraq.
"I just refused to be scared until we got to the airport and this huge, huge guy – just big and thick and clearly a private-security person – looked me up and down and asked what on earth I was doing in this country."
After her boss, William Spencer, explained they worked for a human rights nongovernmental organization, the man looked Houlihan over again and told her, "You have no business being here. You need to be really careful."
"That, of course, completely freaked me out," Houlihan said.
But after making her way through the airport and putting on a bulletproof vest to travel in an armored vehicle to the International Zone, Houlihan began to adapt. "By the time I got to the compound, I was calmer," she said. "I think I'm probably more relaxed about it than is normal at this point."
Later in the same trip, Houlihan had a close encounter with a mortar attack, when a chunk of exploding material crashed through her neighbor's bathroom ceiling.
"I put on my little helmet and sat on the edge of my bed because I didn't know what to do," she said.
"It's still a very dangerous place," said Spencer, who founded the Institute for International Law and Human Rights and serves as its executive director. He added that an Iraqi national who works for the institute was injured by a suicide bomber in April.
Despite that, "It's much better than it was. Still, it takes a certain type of person who's willing to not just understand the environment and the situations that you're in from a security and personal status, but also be able to adapt and even work well under those conditions."
Houlihan, Spencer said, "has a really good way with people, a very respectful tone with the Iraqis, and an ability to sort of bob and weave and respond to some of the changes and the security and the craziness that's associated with post-conflict Iraq."
"It's one thing to be able to do incredibly competent, deadline-oriented hardnosed comparative law and also to think about solutions to these problems," he said. "Erin can immediately pull out what these problems are and how they can be addressed. We're very happy to be associated with her."
Despite the logistical challenges, Houlihan said she was thrilled to gain experience in human rights law, and is currently in Iraq for an 18-day trip sandwiched between when her law classes ended and graduation.
"I really love Iraq," she said. "I'm really happy to be doing it for that particular country, and for the people I've met. I would love to live there long-term and do this work."
Houlihan said she still sees much to hope for the country, despite recent problems like a decrease in the number of women appointed to ministerial positions and an expansion of executive branch power.
"They are new institutions and people are seeing how far they can push them, and I hope that that's all that it is," she said. "There are a lot of very, very smart and sophisticated people in government and civil society working to strengthen the new democracy and protect human rights."
After graduation, Houlihan will study for the bar and begin a state court clerkship in August.
"I figure 2012 is going to be the year for vacation," she said.