March 24, 2020
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After completing her first year at Harvard Law School, Sarah Kahwash ’14 wasted no time jumping into her next challenge. Within 48 hours, she arrived in Washington, D.C., and headed to the Supreme Court to meet her new boss: National Public Radio legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. We talked to Sarah about how her experiences at Kenyon led her to pursue a legal career.
You wouldn’t necessarily think economics and languages fit together as two majors in tandem, but plenty of people take on those courses of study at Kenyon and find that not only are the classes very intersectional, but also the faculty and students all know each other, so it doesn’t feel disparate at all. It feels like one cohesive education. Also, economics and languages both share a basis in the study of logic. One skill that law school requires is clear, tight logical thinking, so it was helpful to me that I’d already practiced that type of thinking at Kenyon.
In the three years since you’ve graduated, you’ve taught in both the United States and Malaysia (on a Fulbright fellowship) and also have had experience working on Wall Street. Why did you decide to go to law school now?
Being a teacher and coming from a large family with a lot of younger cousins made me passionate about helping kids. My parents are both immigrants from Syria, and with the onset of the Syrian Civil War, there have been a lot of children orphaned. One thing people don’t know about Syria is that it’s very difficult to adopt there or to adopt from there, and that’s a problem. So, I went to law school thinking that I’m going to study international law and adoption and try to use my education to help children in underprivileged environments.
This summer, you’re interning for Nina Totenberg at NPR. What’s a typical day like?
There isn’t much of a typical day with Nina, especially in the summer because that is when the final opinions of the Supreme Court are coming down. My first day on the job, they announced the case Cooper v. Harris, which is about racial gerrymandering in North Carolina. Nina has to adapt to the news cycle. You don’t know which opinions are going to be announced, so you don’t know if you’re going to have a really big case that needs immediate coverage, and if she needs to be on the air right away, or who she’s going to be interviewing. Nina does quick spots sometimes to get the news out, but then she’ll also work on a longer piece and update it throughout the day. She’ll do an audio piece for “All Things Considered,” for example, and then she’ll send me the transcript and we’ll work together to turn it into a written piece, because obviously those are two different types of writing. It’s really important that someone translates what the legal language means for people who are affected by it. And of course Nina’s very good at that, so it’s fun to watch her work her magic and help in any way I can.
How did working for the Observer, Kenyon’s political magazine, help prepare you for working at NPR?
One thing I thought the Observer did well was try hard to be a multipartisan publication. We tried to get a mix of opinions on campus: let’s be clear that Kenyon is a left-leaning place, but there are a lot of conservative voices, too. There are a lot of people who don’t identify with a political party or who would identify on some point of the spectrum maybe not conventionally recognized. I felt like we worked very hard to bring out conservative voices and liberal voices. In meetings, where we had a lot of disagreement among the staff, encouraging healthy debate was the way we would try to get article ideas. So being on the Observer primed me a little more to realize how much goes into both good reporting and good opinion writing. You need to be open minded and receptive to a lot of different opinions, and good at synthesizing that information and thinking about it critically.
This fall, you’ll serve as a teaching fellow for economist Greg Mankiw. How did studying economics at Kenyon prepare you to teach undergraduate economics students at Harvard?
Every year, Harvard interviews graduate students willing to be teaching fellows. I had to teach a mock lesson on the labor supply curve, and I was channeling both Professors [Jay] Corrigan and [Kathy] Krynski — two of the best teachers I’ve had. At a place like Kenyon where you can really get to know your professors, I enjoyed the economics major so much more because I could go in and talk to Corrigan or Krynski about what I was studying.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.