Joy Ruqsapram, LL.M. '08, grew up in Bangkok, Thailand, with a Thai father and a Swedish mother. Her first name, in fact, came from her mother's culture; but "Joy" is only used as a nickname in Thailand, where names are much longer. So, Ms. Ruqsapram laughs, when she introduces herself in Thailand, people ask "yes, but what is your full name?"
In Thailand, as in many countries, law is an undergraduate degree. "You choose your profession when you graduate from high school," Ms. Ruqsapram explains. To make the choice, she first considered the jobs in her family. Her father is retired from a private business, her mother and sister work at the Swedish Embassy in Bangkok, and her brother studied environmental science and computer science. Then she considered her Thai grandfather, who passed away when she was quite young. "When I was younger, I found a book about his life that was created for his funeral, and it influenced me," says Ms. Ruqsapram. "He was a lawyer in the south of Thailand. I feel proud and in some way I want to be like him."
"In Thailand, we still have a lot of uneducated people, and I've seen many people taken advantage of," Ms. Ruqsapram says. "Becoming a lawyer and a judge gives you a chance to help people."
She attended Chulalongkorn University, the oldest university in Thailand, where she focused on business law. "I find that business law is really up to date and evolving all the time," explains Ms. Ruqsapram. "I could also use a lot of my knowledge of English." While in law school, she worked for the rural development volunteer camps, which are set up by members of the law faculty. "Once a year, we go out to a rural area where people are quite uneducated and need a lot of help," Ms. Ruqsapram says. "We helped build facilities and a school, educated them about their land rights, and helped teach the children."
Ms. Ruqsapram also considered volunteering after the tsunami but feared to undertake the burial details described by her friends. Her family did adopt two "tsunami dogs," to add to their menagerie of dogs and cats. "It's in my family's blood," jokes Ms. Ruqsapram. "I volunteered for the Thailand SPCA [Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals] and went to other provinces to help sterilize the animals." In Ithaca, she volunteered for the SPCA every week. "I go there because of me," she explains. "It gets the stress off—and I miss my dogs and cats."
With the ultimate goal of becoming a judge, Ms. Ruqsapram took both the lawyer's certifi- cation, which allows you to practice law in Thailand, and the bar exam, which is required to become a Thai judge. "It's almost like another degree," she explains. "I took a year off to study, in a course organized by the bar association." She placed fourth in the Thai bar exam, out of over 1,400 candidates.
To take the judicial exam in Thailand, you have to be twenty-five years old, pass the bar, and have practiced law. Therefore, the next step for Ms. Ruqsapram was to practice law for the minimum of two years, which she did as the legal assistant to a commissioner in the National Telecommunications Commission. The agency manages all telephones, both mobile and fixed, as well as Internet and satellite systems for Thailand. Her boss was also one of her professors. "He was more like a teacher and a dad, pushing me to go further," says Ms. Ruqsapram. Most Thai students study abroad, usually in the United States or the United Kingdom, and her boss wrote her recommendations for Cornell.
Cornell University has a very good reputation in Thailand. In fact, HRH Princess Bajrakitiyabha Mahidol of Thailand attended Cornell Law School, earning her LL.M. in 2002 and her J.S.D. in 2005. Two years later, the Law School and the Thai Bar Association collaborated to set up a scholarship and exchange program to link the two countries, naming it in honor of Princess Bajrakitiyabha. It includes a scholarship fund providing a full year's tuition and expenses for a Thai student with especially outstanding qualifications. Ms. Ruqsapram was the first student to receive a scholarship from this program.
"It's quite an honor," she says. "Before I came here, I had a chance to meet with the princess. I didn't even know what to say—I was very nervous! In Thailand, when you speak to royalty you use more formal terms, and I'm not sure how well I spoke, but I think she knew how excited I was. The Princess wished me luck; she said I'd have a great time. It was one of the most memorable days of my life."
In Thailand, the legal system is based on civil law, beginning with the abstract rules laid down by statutes, while the United States uses the common law system, drawing many rules from specific court cases. As a result, Ms. Ruqsapram says, "I'm used to reading statutes and then cases which interpret such statutes. But here, you learn the cases first and try to figure out what the rules are. This is very challenging. I have to adapt myself to a new way of learning and question what I have never questioned before."
In the LL.M. program, Ms. Ruqsapram took a variety of courses, and did research for law professor John H. Blume on the death penalty in Thailand. "In our system, after the case is final, the convicted person can ask for royal pardon," she explains. "Most do get that, so only a few are executed." However, she found it difficult to take a position in death penalty arguments. "Even if the murderer is vicious, it's still really hard to take the life of another," Ms. Ruqsapram says. "But then I researched some horrible crimes and thought—what about the victims? I think I need firsthand experience before I can say what's right."
In Ithaca, Ms. Ruqsapram enjoyed the rural landscape, which reminded her of trips to visit relatives in Sweden. She also loved the snow, and even tried skiing. "I spent most of the time rolling down the hill," she laughs. "Whenever I got scared, I'd just sit down and roll!"
Talking about her hard work at Cornell, Ms. Ruqsapram recalls her Swedish grandfather, who lived with her family in Bangkok during his final years. "He was always joking around and teasing," she says. "He did everything. He was a soldier, a high school teacher, and a teacher of the mentally ill. I always wished I had his life." While proud of how her Thai grandfather benefited society, Ms. Ruqsapram says, "I also want to be happy, like my Swedish grandfather. I'm trying my best to combine the two."
As for plans after Cornell, Ms. Ruqsapram is deciding between taking the Thai exam to become a judge first and pursuing further education later, or attending the University of Cambridge in England for a master's degree right away, where she would examine how the common law system is used in the United Kingdom. Either route will require hard work, but that seems to make this international student happy.
~ JUDITH PRATT