As a kid in her hometown of Boulder, Colorado, Laura Zhang (Gallatin ’23) would play her violin on the street to raise money for a local children’s hospital. In the years since then, Laura’s commitment to helping the most vulnerable has only grown. A senior at Gallatin, where she has concentrated on immigration and human rights, Laura spent the past few months studying at NYU Buenos Aires, leading efforts to help people experiencing homelessness procure glasses and dental products, and to finish their primary and secondary education.

portrait of Laura Zhang with purple background

Laura Zhang (Photo by Jonathan King)

The year before, she was selected for The Gallatin Global Fellowship in Human Rights, a year-long program that supports selected NYU students with funding while working with human rights organizations. “When I came to Gallatin, I knew I was passionate about immigrants and refugees and the human rights process,” Laura reflects, but she says it was “actually getting to work with those communities”—conducting legal intakes for unaccompanied minors in the US immigration system as part of her fellowship—along with her coursework that expanded both her theoretical and practical understanding of how human rights issues come into play. 

Specifically, Laura was struck by the ways language barriers can disadvantage immigrants and refugees seeking legal assistance and aid, an observation that led her to develop her Gallatin concentration, Language and Legality: Reimagining the Preservation of Selfhood in Human Rights.

“I'm particularly interested in migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, and unaccompanied minors who come to the United States from other countries, and are inevitably relying on a system of legality that often doesn't serve them,” Laura explains. “I'm curious about how language is often a burden to achieving legality.” 

Her research also examines the role of language as a means of protest and artistic expression for people entangled in the legal system. During her work with the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project (QDEP), she created an oral history collection with some of QDEP’s members. 

“The oral history collection was a way to feature the realities of the people I met at QDEP through their stories of struggle through the asylum process, but also in their joys and lives beyond it,” she said. 

As she heads into her final semester, Laura will remain in Buenos Aires to work with Memoria Abierta, an organization that promotes memory and archives of Argentina’s human rights violations. In her role, she will create and index digital files from their archives of the Trial of the Juntas, trials during which members of Argentina’s last dictatorship were prosecuted. 

“I chose my concentration because I have a deep value for what I've learned from the communities and people I've met that goes beyond their legal status, and includes their stories of family, loss, memory, and survival.”