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Shariful Khan: Helping Yale Help Local Law School Aspirants

Shariful Khan is a student at Yale Law School. He was raised in Queens, graduated from The City College of New York, and is a lifelong New York Giants fan. Shariful has been interested in socioeconomic mobility his entire life, a passion spurred on by his own life experiences and background.

When and how did you first decide to attend law school and become an attorney? What do you hope to do with your law degree? What kind of law do you hope to practice?

I don’t know if there was ever a ‘eureka’ moment for me. My dad is a city court clerk and so I grew up in a space adjacent to the courtroom. I was raised in a neighborhood and community where people were taken advantage of every day by predatory lawyers, and all I saw at my dad’s job were lawyers who were failing their clients. I was frustrated, but it was only when I started working at a South Asian women’s domestic violence nonprofit that I saw the tangible economic impact on people’s lives. The world looks a little grayer once you’ve spoken to mothers who have spent their last dollar trying to protect themselves against landlords refusing to turn on the heat, only to have their calls and emails ignored by their lawyer as soon as the money had switched hands. I came to law school because I see how intertwined the connection is between economic stability and law. There’s a lot that goes into this, and it makes me unsure of the exact “path” I want to follow in the future, but I hope that my law degree allows me to effectuate some positive change upon the world.

What are the biggest challenges faced by first-generation, low-income students considering a career in law?

Where do I begin? Law, perhaps at its core, is an elitist profession. The field is dominated by individuals who live drastically different lives than many of the people whose lives they impact. FGLI students are the nexus, the people who bridge the gap between communities and law, but this comes with a lot of challenges. For example, if you hail from a neighborhood harmed by tough immigration policies and come to law school to become an immigrants’ rights advocate, you’re forced to walk a tightrope. The cases you read, the laws you cite, none of it is impersonal for you. You’re a more effective advocate, but it also takes a toll on you in a different way than it does for others. FGLI students also have to deal with a number of other issues: figuring out how they want to spend their careers without knowing other lawyers; navigating loans without financial security; being a large source of their family income; the list goes on. FGLI students have a tough road ahead of them no matter what, but they’re the most valuable people to have in the field because they get it better than anyone else—they know the power that comes with having an effective advocate on your side.

How did you come to be involved with Yale’s Law School Access Program?

Professor Forman posted a research assistant opening on our law school’s internal website. I didn’t hesitate—I’d been a part of a pipeline program in my undergrad, and I’m always thinking of ways to help students who don’t succeed do better. I recognize that I’m privileged to be where I am, and it makes me constantly wonder what spurred on my success when so many of the people I know from other points of my life have struggled and worked just as hard as me but not been privy to the same opportunities. It also didn’t hurt that Professor Forman’s a larger-than-life figure at our law school, and I wanted to learn and grow from him.

Can you describe your involvement with the program? What is your role?

Like I said, I started off as a research assistant. What that entailed was a lot of scurrying around and trying to get people to apply to a program that we were building as we went along. It was incredibly fun and rewarding to see “Access" go from a few half-formed ideas in our head to something tangible. Now, I’m one of the Yale Law students who helps run the program. I’m involved in media outreach, but we all wear a ton of different hats, ranging from mentorship to LSAT tutors to mental health advocates for our Fellows. 

How do you identify the aspiring law school students that participate in the program? 

Our first priority was getting students from New Haven and the surrounding community. Yale’s had a difficult relationship with the area for a long time, and Professor Forman envisioned “Access” as a bridge between the two spaces. We advertised in local newspapers and reached out to neighborhood organizations to hear from people who were truly representative of the community. We also looked for Fellows who were not prototypical law school applicants—people with stories that looked more like a twisting country road rather than a straight highway. We didn’t prioritize things like grades or resume markers because we wanted to help people who had something valuable to say regardless of their current position or status, especially those who might not apply to law school without our help.

Is there a person or moment in your childhood that inspired you to become the kind of person who pays things forward and helps others achieve their dreams, too?

My parents have always inspired me. They’re immigrants who struggled to survive and make ends meet when they first arrived in America. But I have never seen them jealously guard their time, money, or experiences. Their attitude has always been “of course I should pay it forward—I was helped along when I got here!” My parents let young Muslim couples abandoned by their families live in our home while they figure their lives out. My dad takes calls late into the evening from immigrants searching for housing and jobs. My mom used to work at McDonald’s, and would always take shifts from young college students or parents whenever they had an emergency even though she herself experienced an incredible amount of pain walking around due to diabetes and arthritis. My parents were once these people, and they always look to pay it forward. In our household, it's always been about the community and others, and I’ve taken that lesson to heart.

Think back to when you were 16 years old. What did you want to be when you grew up?

Honestly? An astronaut. I think I actually got into law when I realized that I did not have the necessary skills to be one, but I realized that there must have been kids all over the country who did have the capability who would never pursue the career because of barriers in their life. Maybe I can’t be the first guy on Mars, but I can make sure that a kid who’s super into science doesn’t have to give that up because they’re worried about where their next meal is coming from.

If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give to your 16-year old self? Is that the same advice you would give me now? 

Things happen in ways you’d never expect. Trying to plan your life out can feel satisfying and might make you feel like you have some agency over what will happen, but stay open to possibilities and enjoy the different roads life takes you down. You never ever know where you’ll end up.


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