INTERVIEW: CHELSEA RINNIG (JHU ’11), PEACE CORPS ZAMBIA VOLUNTEER
Background & Bio
Chelsea Rinnig grew up in Los Angeles, California and graduated from Santa Monica High School in 2007. She matriculated to Johns Hopkins as a Bloomberg Scholar that fall and double majored in History and Writing Seminars. She contributed as an active member for a variety of organizations at JHU, including the Undergraduate Admissions Office and the Hopkins Symphony Orchestra, as well as acted in leadership positions for Foundations: An Undergraduate Journal in History and Phi Mu. After completing a Masters thesis based on original research, she graduated in 2011 with a BA/MA in History. Her research focused on tactics of the National Women’s Party and Alice Paul in first and second wave feminist movements in the United States.
Chelsea then worked as a paralegal for the Antitrust Division at the Department of Justice in Washington, DC. She acted as a lead paralegal on multiple cases in the Networks and Technology Section, as well as traveled to support litigation for the Division’s case against Apple, Inc. regarding the price of e-books. However, her concern for human rights and working at a grassroots level led her to shift towards international development and serve as a volunteer with the Peace Corps. As an Environment volunteer, Chelsea lived in a rural village in Zambia for 27 months and returned to the United States this year.
Chelsea enjoys hiking, running, and cooking on a range stovetop oven. She recently resumed working Sundays at a local farmers market in Los Angeles and remains deeply invested in continuing a conscientious career in the service of others.
Describe a day in the life of a Peace Corps Zambia Volunteer.
Every Peace Corps Volunteer has a different experience and even within Zambia, each project entails a different structure. On top of that, each community the volunteer serves in has a variety of needs that the volunteer can choose to focus on based on their own assessment. However, I can say that universally each volunteer holds a great deal of autonomy in what they choose to do with their service. Just living as a visitor in a village satisfies the cultural exchange and integration components of the job description.
My schedule varied greatly day to day and season to season. During the dry, agricultural off-season, I spent time organizing and conducting trainings for different villages, community groups, and the local school. With my local counterparts acting as co-facilitators, I planned and taught major workshops on gender rights for girls, tree-planting and grafting, conservation farming techniques, and organic gardening. Other months I focused on malaria prevention education, teaching children and teachers how to utilize the school library, or built fuel-efficient stoves one-on-one with women in my community. During the farming season, I shifted gears to work on my own tree-planting, field, and gardening activities for demonstration. Much of the work of a community educator required leading by example, and inviting questions by incorporating these many components in a visible way into my daily life.
Just living rurally though required time investment. I lived in a grass-roofed mud hut without running water or electricity, so I had to haul water from a borehole a few times a week for cleaning dishes, bathing outside, and washing laundry by hand. Cooking often involved lighting a fire and I used candles or a solar powered lamp for light.
Even with all of this effort into living day by day, I found life to feel quite slow. I could relax most mornings and read with a cup of coffee, and I spent a great deal of time interacting with my friends and neighbors—most often speaking in the local language Nyanja.
What made you choose this particular position and did it meet your expectations?
I wanted to work directly with individuals and garner a sense of my own agency as a recent graduate by having more self-determination within my career and daily life. I thought that such a unique experience would add immense dimension to my own perspective and a wealth of personal strength that I most often admire in those who live unbounded by fear. Overall, I felt that I could learn a great deal about living life as a good person.
I gained a number of close friends within my community and afforded myself such an independently driven job by abandoning any fear I had about living abroad for such a seemingly long period of time. I had to work creatively to find ways of connecting to my community, and determine the best means of offering them opportunity and empowerment. Equally, they educated me in a number of ways. I have a deep appreciation for this experience, despite the many unexpected challenges I encountered. As an individual, though, I did attain that personal growth I was seeking before I left. Though I’ll admit it’s left me with many more questions than the answers I had anticipated.
Did you pursue anything else during your interim years before beginning law school? How did you go about researching each of these opportunities?
My first job after graduating Hopkins was as a paralegal at the Department of Justice (DOJ), Antitrust Division. I had actually had hopes of living abroad in South Asia during my senior year, but I also utilized the Career Center quite regularly during that time to discuss, find, and apply to other opportunities in public service. Because I had always pondered but never seriously pursued the idea of attending law school, I thought the position at the DOJ would elucidate those realities of actually being an attorney in public service by working in close proximity to them.
I accepted the job a few months after graduation, and then once I found myself well-adjusted, I began networking in DC with other individuals working in international development and human rights organizations. After some perspective garnering and about a year at the DOJ, I decided to apply to the Peace Corps to get the firsthand, integrated, and authentic international experience I had been looking for all along.
What do you think you have gained from the experiences and from taking time off before law school? Given the choice, would you do it again?
Graduating with a BA and MA in my four years at Hopkins and the work that required, I had no realistic intention or consideration of further higher education. Without that time off, I certainly would not have come to the same conclusion I maintain now, which is that the concrete skill and language that a law degree entails would enable me to provide a service to others based on knowledge of the law. By understanding what law can do and where it fails the poor, the impoverished, or the discriminated, perhaps we can advocate new policy or represent others in landmark cases that change the interpretation of the law. What I really came to appreciate upon returning to the States after the Peace Corps is that everyone—criminals and degenerates, rich and poor—has the right to representation and the law on an equal playing field. The courts, in an ideal, are a space for people of all levels of society to interact.
I don’t think I would have come to this conclusion without satisfying my exploration into a different culture and lifestyle. Additionally, I found that life as an adult in the working world also allowed me to evolve and mature in a way that I think will make me an even better attorney. “Real world” experiences endowed me with broadened perspective, freedom of independent thought, and personal exploration, which will serve me when I return to an academic setting.
What types of undergraduate opportunities did you pursue that led to your decision to apply to law school? Were there any other experiences that you felt were particularly helpful in strengthening your application to law school?
The classes I chose to fulfill my History degree as well as my research for my two department theses on Alice Paul greatly inform my interest in law school. I primarily studied social inequality in the United States through the lens of race and gender as well as radicalism and the tactics which people consider and use when advocating change. For me, my interest in the law is understanding how to create change through the justice system, and how to utilize it fairly and equally.
In general, I think pursuing an interest in the world and in learning in a diversity of places strengthens my application. During my undergraduate education, I spent a summer in Nepal interning for an NGO; I studied abroad in Argentina to strengthen my Spanish skills; and I interned at Human Rights Watch for a summer in DC. I would say that building my resume with a range of experiences generally strengthens me as an applicant for jobs and for law school—but primarily I pursued those experiences because I felt that they held an opportunity for me to learn a great deal. I could not prescribe the same path to any other student because what I chose held unique interest to me based on whatever I could see at the time. But I would offer that whatever one decides to do to strengthen her resume, she should continue to ask questions throughout the experience. Whether interacting with superiors at my job and learning from their career path or by asking my Zambian host family what they have planted in their garden this year, I find that others hold a wealth of information to share about their lives. It is our responsibility to ask the right questions and listen.
Chelsea is happy to answer any further questions from students. You can connect with her through LinkedIn at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/chelseairinnig.