When you grow up in Zimbabwe, Rutendo S. Hlatshwayo, LL.M. '09 says, "Success is not a luxury, not a choice. When you come from a developing country, doing well means food on the table. I never lacked for anything, but growing up in Zimbabwe has its challenges."
For Hlatshwayo, success meant choosing among law, medicine, or business. "In another world, I think I would have gone into English literature, or philosophy," she says. But she enjoys law. With its focus on logic, theory, and philosophy, law combined her interest in mathematics, English, and history. "I like the structure, and solving problems," she explains. "Just seeing how everything fits in and connects—it's amazing to apply it to life."
Her parents are divorced, and her mother, who works in the airline business, raised Hlatshwayo and her older and younger sisters. "We were a strong all-female household," she says. "My mother is my role model." Hlatshwayo's older sister is a medical student at the Cleveland Clinic; her younger sister is still in high school. Family and friends call Hlatshwayo "Tendi." "Rutendo is very formal," she explains. "Tendi is my usual bubbly self!"
After attending private school, Hlatshwayo went to the University of Cape Town to study in one of the best law programs in Africa. She received her LL.B. in the fall of 2007. "I was very confused when I came here and people asked me what my undergraduate degree was in," she notes—in most countries, law is an undergraduate degree.
At Cape Town, she was elected to the Golden Key International Honor Society, for those who place consistently in the top five percent of their class. She also served as the vice president of the Black Law Students' Forum, a group that raises awareness of the transformations that need to happen in the faculty. "Apartheid was very strong in South Africa," explains Hlatshwayo. "Some black students in primary schools still have to share books. I worked on a subcommittee that began a tutoring program. I'm proud of this project; it made such a difference to the kids who had university students as tutors."
Hlatshwayo was also one of three students selected to be a Final Year Writing Consultant, working with first-year students on their written assignments. "In the law, you really have to shift your thinking in order to write well. It was an honor to be able to assist," she says. "One student came in and told me that she got an A, and I actually felt like breaking down in tears. The little time you spend with people really helps."
She also interned in Zambia with the law firm, Musa Dudhia and Company. "I wanted to get the practical side of the law," Hlatshwayo explains. "It amazes me that here, internships are more or less required. At home, you have to push for that." At Musa Dudhia, she enjoyed research and problem solving. "A client would come in upset about a problem. I'd sift through what they said, get the key facts, then do the research and write up a brief. I learned how to ask the right questions and apply the right facts."
The University of Cape Town has several international exchange programs, each including a scholarship. But Hlatshwayo chose Cornell. "It is prestigious, it's close to New York City, and the people who had gone before me said the LL.M. program was dynamic. I hadn't studied outside of home; haven't had that time to grow."
In the Law School's LL.M. program, Hlatshwayo has made friends from all over the world. "I tried to be as flexible as possible," she notes. "When you're away from home, you become more sensitive to the issues at home. Even the poor people are living quite large compared to home. I wish people there had more opportunities like this; I know they would be able to do well. There are brilliant minds going to waste."
Earlier this year, Hlatshwayo participated in the International Mediation Competition in Paris. Law student Conrad C. Daly '10 invited her to a meeting of the new, campus-wide Alternative Dispute Resolution Society. Coached by a graduate student from Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, the Cornell team was chosen to go to the competition—the first time the team had done so. "There's no formal mediation class here," Hlatshwayo says. "Other teams had classes and professors. But we won three of our four rounds, and I think the group will do even better next year." Mediation, she adds, is very different from law, but it's important for lawyers to understand the process. "Ninety percent of lawsuits are settled," she notes. "That's particularly true of international clients."
She also spoke at the LL.M. seminar series about her paper, "Questions of Constitutionality: The African Response to the Zimbabwean Situation." "The African Union has many charters and democratic ideas, but no set manner to address issues. My talk was about whether they had applied their constitution to the land issue in Zimbabwe." At home, she adds, "we don't criticize. Even though I wasn't talking directly about our government, I'm not going to be sending out videos of my speech!"
For Hlatshwayo, the next step is not clear. "I picked a bad time to get a job," she exclaims. "A lot of my friends who have achieved so much still have a pile of rejection letters." She hopes to serve as a clerk in the Constitutional Court of South Africa, but that dream job would not begin until June 2010. Meanwhile, she's talking with professors about summer research and planning to visit with her sister in Cleveland and her aunt and uncle in Washington, D.C. "When I graduated from college, I was worried, too," she says. "But if you work hard enough, something always turns up."