By Andrew Cohen
It’s more than 7,500 miles from Kathmandu to Berkeley, and on April 25 LL.M. student Jagriti Singh felt even farther away. On a seemingly calm Saturday morning, Singh’s life changed in an instant when a massive earthquake—7.9 on the Richter scale—devastated much of Nepal.
“Before I knew it, I wasn’t sure if I would live,” she said, recalling how the boundary walls of her home collapsed. Singh suffered a fractured left knee, and had to wait four days to see an orthopedist while doctors in Nepal tended to more serious cases. She was put on bed rest for 2½ weeks, and returning to Berkeley for a second summer to finish her Professional Track LL.M. degree appeared in doubt.
While Singh grappled with her physical and emotional pain—the earthquake killed more than 8,000 people in Nepal and displaced entire communities—classmate Marco Portillo thought about ways to help. As president of Berkeley Law’s Student Organization for Advanced Legal Studies (SOALS), his first order of business after returning from Mexico was to organize an event to aid Nepal’s earthquake victims.
That event—a formal LL.M. dinner with Nepali food and drink on June 20—exceeded even Portillo’s lofty expectations. More than 80 people attended, and proceeds from purchased tickets were donated to the Red Cross and Red Crescent to support relief efforts.
SOALS also reached out to the local Nepali community, which provided authentic decorations, food, and handicrafts for sale and donated 10 percent of their proceeds to earthquake relief. Overall, the dinner raised more than $3,500.
A high priority
“It’s the most ambitious project I have organized as SOALS president, but also the most important,” Portillo said. “As lawyers, and as an LL.M. class that comes from 47 countries, we have to try to make this world better. Nepal suffered tremendous loss and needs international solidarity.”
Singh spoke during the event, and helped enlist another speaker—her great uncle, Dr. Bhek Bahadur Thapa, Nepal’s former ambassador to the United States. Attending with members of his family, Thapa said he was deeply moved by the students’ initiative.
“He was in the area to visit relatives,” Singh said. “When Marco spoke to me about the event, I thought it would be good to invite him and his family since they have a long relationship with Berkeley. Dr. Thapa did his research here on South Asian studies while he was a student, his son Bhaskar got his Ph.D. here, and now his grandson Barune just enrolled as a freshman.”
LL.M. students Fabian Pozo of Ecuador and Valerie Noel of Belgium provided musical entertainment at the dinner by performing three songs together—each in a different language. With Pozo also playing electric guitar, they sang “Crimen (Crime)” in Spanish, “Les Feuilles Mortes (The Dead Leaves)” in French, and “Stand by Me” in English.
The SOALS leadership team—with students from France, Ecuador, Malaysia, Switzerland, Mexico, India, and Colombia—worked with the law school’s Advanced Degree Programs staff in organizing the event and creating a donation web page.
“I’m very thankful to Marco for taking the time and coordinating the resources to conduct this event,” Singh said. “I’m also very thankful to my friends here in Berkeley for helping those in need.”
Singh’s Berkeley gratitude extends beyond the law school. While her knee injury was diagnosed as a muscle tear in Nepal, persistent swelling led to a follow-up appointment soon after she returned to campus—where Dr. Sara Edwards detected a tibia plateau fracture.
“Had it not been for University Health Services, my fracture would have gone unnoticed,” Singh said. “They told me it was a serious fracture because it was at my knee joint, and could have had long-term harmful effects.”
A legal counsel for the Nepali government’s Investment Board, Singh works on infrastructure and energy projects that include hyrdo-power initiatives created by public-private partnerships. Portillo is an attorney at Ritch, Mueller, Heather y Nicolau, a top law firm based in Mexico City, where he focuses on energy and environmental law.
“We’re all extremely lucky to be receiving the best education in the world plus an amazing experience in Berkeley,” Portillo said. “It’s imperative that we give something back. Hopefully, this will be the beginning of a new tradition of LL.M. fundraisers that help different places around the world.”