Back To Square One

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By: Kyra Udziela

This summer I spent many long days and insomnia-filled nights as a summer intern with the immigration teams at the ECBA Volunteer Lawyers Project, Inc. (VLP). Every attorney was incredibly welcoming and genuinely maintained an “open door policy,” even when we didn’t have office doors to keep open.

Coming from a gruff city like Chicago, the warm welcome the interns received blew me away. Assigned to The Immigration Program at VLP, I was able to expand my knowledge of the immigration system immensely through contacting and interviewing clients, filling out endless work permit and asylum forms, and by being a fly on the wall during the many team debriefing meetings held weekly. I am excited to continue being involved with VLP, as I loved the content to which I was exposed.

However, that was not my biggest takeaway from my internship. It was something else.

This summer I learned how to be wrong. Lost. Clueless. Brand new. Confused (more often than not). My supervising attorney passed on a phrase from her own mentor that resonated with me throughout the whole summer; I even wrote it down and stuck it to my computer as a constant reminder. “If you’re going to make a mistake, make it a big one, and let everyone know it was you!”

It had been a long time since I was entirely brand new at something, where I didn’t know left from right or an I-765 from an I-589. In middle school, I started learning the Spanish language—one that I’ve now been speaking for eleven years. Throughout my undergraduate career, I was a student athlete—in a sport I have now played for over a decade. During school breaks, I was a waitress and a bartender—a job I held for nearly five years. Based on that expertise at school and work, I was looked to in times of chaos. I was always team captain, vice president, or manager; people knew that I had learned from chaotic experiences and looked to me for guidance, if only because I had been with the team/organization/job for so long. Back then, I thrived on always having the answer, or at least knowing where to go to find the answer. Ah, those were the good old days.

20200730_203215On June 1st, VLP held its intern orientation. We were taught the basics of how VLP operates, how to fill out time sheets…the works. I took it in stride, nothing mind-blowing yet. But the next day we were released into the wild and I was navigating conference calls where the attorneys were throwing around form numbers and acronyms; it felt like another language entirely.

I became a mouse in the corner, not even knowing what I didn’t know. My confidence was shaken, but I started taking notes—what was I hearing that did not translate? Google led me to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website, which later became my best friend and go-to for any immigration form I could possibly want.

Gradually, different assignments were thrown my way. First, research and writing. Great! I’ve always been a decent writer; that should not have been too bad. After a week of researching the wrong thing, my memo was scrapped and I was nudged in the right direction. I was gutted.

Next, I-589s: applications for asylum within the United States. The emails requesting these completed forms always included other, past, forms with the necessary information. All I had to do was find the information in one form and fill it in on the new one. Except . . . “You missed a box,” “You need to double check the addresses,” “This minute detail is wrong,” quickly followed. Yikes.

I wasn’t used to getting things wrong, let alone multiple mistakes on a single assignment. I was 0 for 2 and the odds were not in my favor. My confidence was gone and I submitted each new assignment semi-reluctantly, wondering, “Did I screw something else up?”

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m perhaps a little bit harder on myself than most, and I think my supervisor picked up on that. Just two weeks into my internship, I expressed my fears to her: I’m afraid to ask questions and make mistakes. I don’t want anyone to think I’m incompetent . . .

When I opened up, my supervisor was amazing, telling me that she felt the same way as an intern, but that speaking up, asking questions, and making mistakes were the only way you learn. Throughout the summer, she kept encouraging me, ingraining in me the idea that I was expected to make mistakes and have questions. I’m not sure if her confidence in me ever waivered, as she never showed it, helping me navigate many “Duh, I knew that” moments.

Through all of these experiences, I was so eager to soak up every piece of information I could, but at some point the assignments began to blur. My I’m just a clueless intern feeling persisted . . . until my supervisor sent an email asking for an EAD (Employment Authorization Document) packet without specifying all of the necessary components. I immediately pulled up the correct form and began to fill it out without hesitation. I didn’t need to ask clarifying questions, and produced the packet confidently.

I had become so focused on sometimes being wrong that I didn’t register everything that I was actually absorbing. EAD packets used to be an opportunity to miss many little details, but over the course of the summer, they had became second nature without me even realizing it. I was able to take a step back and realize that I was actually keeping up with conference calls—and using their technical lingo!

It had been so long since I was entirely new at something that I let my fears blind me to how much progress I had actually made. I survived the summer without people thinking I was stupid or incompetent. Not a single person judged me for the mistakes I made early on. I stumbled, fell, crawled for a little, but finally ended the summer on my own two feet.

I wanted so badly to be successful. As I reflect now, I realize that it took until the end to see the biggest success of the summer: I lived the immigration process first hand at VLP.

Udziela KyraName: Kyra Udziela, ’22

Name of Fellowship: Charles E. Mann/ BPILP Public Interest Award

Place of Internship: Erie County Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project, Inc.

Location: Buffalo, NY

One important lesson I have learned from this fellowship: “There is no shame in being entirely new and making mistakes. I wanted so badly to be successful, that I didn’t see the biggest success of the summer: I lived the immigration process first hand at VLP.”

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