When Manase Nyaga, LL.M’20, moved to Syracuse, he hoped to pursue a graduate degree in law but wanted to gain experience in American legal practice first. His plans were complicated when Nyaga, who earned his bachelor of law from the premier university in Uganda, found that some businesses and firms couldn’t recognize his undergraduate degree. But with his wife in nursing school and plans to start a family, not working wasn’t an option. Nyaga was considering a position in retail when he got a call from the Frank Hiscock Legal Aid Society in downtown Syracuse. Hiscock, which provides free legal assistance to low-income individuals and families in Onondaga County, honored Nyaga’s degree and appreciated his international perspective. They offered him a position as a paralegal in their Foreclosure Prevention Project providing counseling and representation to those in danger of losing their homes.
Thus began a promising new chapter, one that would lead Nyaga to the Syracuse University College of Law . “Working on the Foreclosure Project was an amazing experience,” he says. “We were helping people at their greatest time of need and providing real relief.” The work gave Nyaga an eye-opening view into poverty in Central New York. “What impressed me is how similar the issues were here to what I have seen in Kenya. Struggling people deal with the same situations and have the same concerns, regardless their culture or where they live,” he explains. “I really got to see how we are all the same.” Nyaga also worked in the criminal appeals department, visiting clients in prison and attending court proceedings. These experiences added valuable depth to his understanding of the American legal system.
During his three years at Hiscock, Nyaga worked with many Syracuse University College of Law alumni. When he decided to enroll in law school, their endorsement made Syracuse the obvious choice.
Preparation and Support
Nyaga credits his upbringing in Kenya for providing excellent preparation for graduate work at Syracuse University. He attended boarding schools from the age of 10. This fostered an independence helpful in the transition from central Africa to Central New York, and underscores his appreciation for the small class sizes, access to professors, and strong academic and career-oriented support available at Syracuse University. “Among our professors are former judges, intelligence agency attorneys and human rights advocates. It amazes me that professionals with that level of experience would care so much and be so personally involved in our success,” Nyaga says.
Nyaga also appreciates the diversity within the student body at the College of Law. “In a class of 20 people, we may all be from different countries,” he says. “We sit together and hear one another’s views and learn about one another’s cultures.” His experience as a student has expanded how much he values his academic pursuits at Syracuse University. “For me, a degree from Syracuse will change many things. But it’s not just the degree that matters—it’s the whole education.”
Helping Those in Transition
In September 2019, Nyaga became an American citizen in a naturalization ceremony at the Federal Courthouse in downtown Syracuse. The moment was the culmination of a long journey that began when he and his wife met in Zanzibar, where he was working and she was visiting before returning to the U.S. after serving in the Peace Corps. They lived in Zanzibar while Nyaga went through the immigration application process. He was granted admission in 2015, and they came to the U.S. accompanied by their two dogs, Luna and Tusker.
Nyaga says he was unprepared for how much the naturalization ceremony would move him. “When you are becoming a citizen, to have your hand over heart and pledge allegiance—it is very powerful! It really made me think about who I am, and how the Kenyan and American parts of my identity work together.”
This duality, and the wealth of insight he’s gained through work and education, inform Nyaga’s goals for the future. After graduating in May, he intends to move his family to Washington D.C., where he hopes to work on issues of national security or humanitarian aid. His dream job, he says, would allow him to help others who are seeking to fulfill their potential.