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WER Fall 2019 Feature 4
Volume LXX, Issue II

In This Issue:
"Lawyers Making a Difference Through Community Service"

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The Journey That Brought Me to Minnesota and the Power of Community

By: Zuzana Menzlova

Zuzana Menzlova is an Austrian-trained lawyer, University of St. Thomas law student, U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield fellow, and Hennepin County Attorney’s Office law clerk.

 
  Zuzana Menzlova

My hands turned cold and my heartbeat spiked. I was looking at the J1 visiting scholar visa neatly glued into my passport. In that moment, my departure to United States turned from dream to reality. Yet, fear overwhelmed me. Was I ready to give up my comfortable Vienna for something new and unknown? Until that visa arrived, studying U.S. law was an interesting option. In that moment, it became a decision point of life.

Was I ready to start once again from the beginning? At the peak of my doubt, I feared the prospect of personal setbacks. But I had a hidden strength in the Minnesota community. I had sweet friends living in the Twin Cities I could lean on, a return flight I could rebook, and my childhood room in my parents’ house I could move to if the completely crazy plan went awry. Though these comforts seem small, many foreign visitors to this country do not have such tools of resilience, and I was thankful for them in that moment.

It was late summer of 2016 and I decided to take my leap of faith and travel to the United States to explore the U.S. legal system and its law school community. My first visit to the Midwest was as a high school exchange student. My second visit was that of a visiting scholar over a decade later. Now, prospects for a rewarding experience with the Minnesota legal community brought me back yet again, this time as a J.D. student.

I grew up in post-communist Slovakia, a country transformed by the hope emergent with the fall of the iron curtain, vintage 1990, and by the subsequent resignation to the hardships of transformation, with the realization that change is neither immediate nor guaranteed. Slovaks have endured harsh political regimes for centuries. I like to believe we persisted as a society because we recognize and value our unique identity, our community. It is strong, and it is good.

Families across generations tend to live either together or close to each other to help one another as the challenges of Slovak life are many. Every time I travel through the breathtaking mountainous country, I come across testaments of dedication to our community and each other. Monuments, plaques, ruins all witness to moments of past devotion. These physical markers, and even more the emotional ones within the hearts of my Slovak community, have opened my life to experiences I could not have imagined.

One such life changing moment occurred during my summer break, hiking through the Slovak Paradise National Park. One moment I was traversing rocks of the rugged gorge above the Hornád river, the next I was captivated by a group of enthusiastic archeology students reconstructing a 14th century Carthusian monastery. A passionate professor from Comenius University spent decades excavating at the monastery with barely a shoestring of funds. I was smitten by his dedication and how this project had brought a whole community together as volunteers. I immediately joined their efforts in exchange for food, a roof, and a promised adventure. After that summer, my quest to preserve cultural heritage began. That is the inspiration that comes of community.

When the time to select a university came, I decided to study law at the University of Vienna to gain an international perspective and deepen my education. I attended classes, which prompted me to think critically about legal, ethical, religious, and cultural identity, and how the unique role of each is strengthened by shared dependence. As my University aims to educate well-rounded professionals, I received a scholarship to study law for a year in Athens, Greece. This allowed me to observe yet another legal system before I concluded my studies in Austria. The most valuable gift Vienna gave me was an introduction to a worldview of prominent philosophers, which furthered my desire to serve my community.

This desire led me to Cameroon after my graduation. I worked for a passionate woman advocating at Reach Out Cameroon, a local nonprofit with a mission to empower women and youth. I assisted with programs to train local women on how to navigate a small business, and to raise awareness of sexual assaults against women and girls by soldiers in the Bakassi peninsula. Working under a powerful leader who dedicated her life to helping women advance, and seeing the impact she made on so many lives, I realized the crucial importance of us women standing together and supporting each other. It is through small steps that we achieve larger journeys of social impact.

Since coming to Minnesota, I feel accepted. You have opened a place for me, and I am home. My J1 visa is still in my passport, but my moment of panic is but a faded memory. The legal community in the Twin Cities is inspiring and welcoming. I have been enjoying my new engagements here with many adventures, both inside and outside the issues of law. My law school employment has included law library services, legal writings on diversity and inclusion, and now clerkship with the offices of Hennepin County Attorney.

Through my friends, I reached out to the legal and cultural heritage advocates at the United States Committee of the Blue Shield, an organization dedicated to the protection of cultural heritage in armed conflict. They have introduced me to heritage and cultural institutions across the US as well as military, customs, and civilian law enforcement. I am thankful too for my connections to Minnesota Women Lawyers for the way it brings us together and the important voice it brings to enhance the strength of women in the law.

My journey may be crooked and yet I am grateful its many irregularities have brought me here. My path to this community in the Twin Cities has laid before me the strength of so many women whose leadership has been both inspirational and motivating. This has encouraged my curiosities and embolden my confidences. Each milestone taught me important lessons and skills I am using in my professional life. I hope these kernels of wisdom will be something I can one day pass on to other women who need the strength of another’s hand, and the power of a pull upwards, like those so many women have extended to me. In turn, I hope they too will have the passion to build that enriched community that nourishes its people and passes its legacy.

Minnesotans, you have a distinct culture here. That may be read with some element of controversy, but I assure you that even if you are too close to see it, you are powerfully inspired by a tradition. I can perhaps observe it more clearly with my foreign eyes. You are giving this home a wonderful community. It is strong and it is good. Thank you for so generously allowing me to share this with you.

 



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