A Bronx-born, first-generation American, Fatoumata Waggeh first realized a desire to advocate for marginalized populations during a service trip to Mali in high school. “I saw how rural communities there face the same historical systems of oppression that continue to inhibit the advancement and success of people of African descent in the United States,” says the 2013 NYU graduate. “It birthed a desire to work to advance human rights for Black and other marginalized people around the world.” She brought this desire to the NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study where, as an Arthur O. Eve Higher Education Opportunity Program student, she concentrated her degree on African political development and colonial history and law.
Discovering Her Purpose
As an NYU Gallatin student, Fatoumata took courses across the University, diving into topics such as African post-colonial theory, feminism, and critical race theory. “A College of Arts and Science class called Law and Society was my first exposure to law, and I fell in love,” she says. She nurtured this love in a number of other legal courses while continuing to learn more about systemic oppression, human rights, and social justice.
She participated in Gallatin’s Americas Scholars Program, traveling to Hawaii to see how Indigenous communities face the same historical, systemic oppression as Black and immigrant populations. She also received the Gallatin Dean’s Award for Summer Research, which allowed her to spend a summer in her parents’ native Gambia working with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. These experiences, combined with multiple legal and social justice internships, pointed to one thing. “I made a commitment that everything I did after graduation would be for the purpose of getting into law school and becoming an effective legal advocate,” Fatoumata says.
Gaining Powerful Experience
She began as a corporate paralegal, which helped her build her network and experience life as a lawyer. Her firm’s pro bono work with the Legal Aid Society and the Manhattan District Attorney also helped her grow as an advocate. “NYU gave me the skills to effectively engage in these pro bono cases,” Fatoumata says.
She soon became a civic organizer with African Communities Together, an organization dedicated to empowering African immigrants. Her work included bringing French and Arabic into New York City’s language access plan and coordinating a coalition to oppose the federal government’s refugee ban. And then it was time for this NYU Gallatin alum to become a lawyer.
Breaking Cycles of Inequity
She enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School and, in May 2020, earned her Juris Doctor degree. “The skills I developed at NYU—oral advocacy, effective writing, thoughtful discourse—were invaluable to my experience in law school,” Fatoumata shares. At Penn, she continued her drive to become the best social justice advocate she could be. She interned with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and traveled to Africa frequently to support human rights organizations. She’s worked tirelessly but is not even close to finished. “I am unapologetically committed to using my skills and voice as a weapon to break down cycles of inequity,” she says. “Now, more than ever, it’s important to have lawyers who are at intersections like I am. Who are Black, Muslim, first-generation Americans. Who can harness the power of law for the benefit of the forgotten among us.”