Katya Stella Assoé sat down with Law Professor Ubaka Ogbogu to discuss mentorship, advocacy, and how to navigate law school.
Q. Please introduce yourself by telling us a little about your law school and career journey, research, and any fun facts.
I am a law professor at the University of Alberta. I started at the U of A Faculty of Law in 2011. I received my Masters in Law from that law school so I have been a part of that school since 2002, when I moved to Canada for graduate studies. I teach a variety of courses at the Faculty of Law at the University of Alberta. My primary expertise is in health law and science policy. I teach upper year courses in that area but I also teach first year torts. I used to be cross-appointed to the Faculty of Pharmacy but my cross-appointment ended last year, so I am now 100% in the law school where I teach courses on health and science policy. I will also, next year, be teaching public health law and policy.
I started my law school career in Nigeria, West Africa. That’s where I was born and that’s where I grew up. I went to the University of Benin in Benin City and then I did Nigerian law school to get a call to the bar. I practiced law for about three to four years in Nigeria and decided to move into academia, so I got a job as an assistant professor at the University of Nigeria. I then decided to do a Master’s degree in law and that brought me to Edmonton, Alberta. I finished my Masters and met my wife here in Edmonton and then went on to the University of Toronto, where I got a PhD. After that, we had a child in the process and there was a little stint I did in the United States before moving back to Alberta because I was hired back as a tenure track professor, and so my wife and I came back here with our little daughter. We now have two daughters and we've lived here ever since.
Fun facts about me: I have a mild obsession with fashion listicles. I read a lot of lists, like GQ and Esquire. I’m generally very interested in fashion. I like wristwatches. I collect mechanical wristwatches. I like spy novels and spy movies; I have a mild obsession with that as well. I write poetry and I like people. One of my favorite things to do is hang out with people - I’m very extroverted.
Q. Law schools across Canada often have very few or no Black professors. What do you think the biggest barriers to entry are for Black students seeking to pursue PhDs?
At my law school, there’s only one Black law professor and we’ve only ever had one full time tenured professor in the history of the law school and that’s me. Some law schools don’t even have any.
I think the biggest barrier for law students looking to move into an academic career is partly a lack of visibility of people in that role that they can model their career after. I would also suggest a lack of mentorship, but I think it’s also because law schools are not very good at setting out different career paths for law students. The minute you hit law school, there’s only one career path that is really presented to you in seriousness and that is law practice. So partly, it’s because you don’t see too many people to model yourself after in that role who are Black and it’s partly because law schools just do a very terrible job of presenting different career paths to students. When it comes to Black students, it becomes even worse: they don’t even do enough to help Black students to get into that main career path. Then [Black students] struggle with getting into firms and for them it becomes a matter of disappointment after disappointment and [they] don’t even start to think about alternate careers because the main one that is presented is not readily available.
I think it’s one of the biggest failings of law schools across Canada: they don’t do enough for Black students. If you look at law schools as they are right now, you won’t be encouraged as a Black person to even exist in them and even less work in them, they are not a very hospitable place for Black professionals. My journey through law school in Canada has been a struggle and a lot of perseverance and change in my personality to fit in the environment [was necessary] as opposed to having the environment embrace me as a person. It’s a tough place to be, [law school] is not a very hospitable place for Black people or for racialized persons in general.
Q. How can organizations like BLSA Canada reduce these barriers?
I don’t think it’s the task of Black organizations to correct these failings. I don’t think organizations like BLSA, which didn’t exist in my time, should have the task of correcting the very things that [we] face. I think that that should lay solely at the feet of those who actually run the system and who are responsible for the system’s problems. Be that as it may, I think one thing Black organizations can do is be a rallying ground for Black persons to gather and share [their] collective wisdom and pain and to serve as a starting point for a way of reaching to control the system and letting [people] know what Black people are saying and feeling within these institutions.
That to me is the primary thing, to just be there.
Q. How do you think mentorship assists Black law students to thrive and succeed?
As somebody that has assumed that role over my career, I know how important it is to Black students in general. It can be the difference between succeeding and failing. It can be the difference between having a good experience and a terrible experience. It makes a huge amount of difference. In my experience, it serves as a way of providing that sense of community and that sense of belonging that Black students often struggle with. It’s also a place to share some of those cultural touchstones. I enjoy when a Black student comes into my office, and we can talk about things [that we] intuitively understand as Black people. There’s also a part of the mentorship when you connect with a Black person who’s a mentor and you don’t need to say much about what it is you want to talk about before they understand.
I see my primary role at the Faculty of Law of the U of A, not as a law professor who just teaches and does research, but as someone who’s there to support my students in their learning journey, that’s how I see my role and I take that role very seriously. It’s something I truly believe is central to my role as a law professor.
Q. What advice do you have for students intimidated by the idea of reaching out to lawyers and professors?
If you’re struggling, a good starting point would be to just take that step and approach a Black law professor or just another Black professor at the university. We understand, as Black professors, that we just can’t exist in these spaces and not be mindful of those who are coming behind us and who represent for us a sense of community that is different from just belonging to this university. Many of us do understand what the mission is when it comes to Black students and I think approaching a Black professor and saying ‘how do I navigate these spaces?’ is a good starting point. It will be an anomaly for you to approach a Black professor and they dismiss you. All the Black professors that I know at the UofA are invested in the Black community within the community because we understand what is at stake
We exist in spaces where we have to be brave. We have to create opportunity where there is none, we have to create community where there is none. We have to create our success when all we see in front of us are barriers. Even when it doesn’t exist, you just have to take that step, you have to be braver than usual and that’s the story of underrepresentation and lack of inclusion.
Q. Last year, you shared the hate mail and voice messages you received as a result of questioning the government of Alberta's response to COVID-19. What advice do you have for law students who want to speak out on issues they care about but fear reprisal?
I understand the fear and I couldn’t honestly say that stepping forward won’t impact you negatively. Throughout my career, speaking up has actually impacted me in many ways: it has delayed my career, I've had the reprisal you talk about - so there are real consequences to doing it.
The one thing that has really helped me is an ability to pick my battles. There’s so much going on, there’s all kinds of things to fight on a daily basis that you can’t fight them all. It’s physically draining [and] it’s challenging for the other relationships that you have in your life. People ought to develop a good sense of what kind of issues cross the line for you and which you’re going to actually pursue. It helps make sure you don’t spread yourself too thin. You have to know which kind of issues really are worth responding to. For me [those] are usually issues that go beyond the personal, that will have an impact on my community as I see it, and [when] I feel like not speaking up will set us back in a very significant way. Once that happens, then it becomes important to make sure that you’re crafting a message that the members of the community will support. Even in institutions where you’re alone because you’re the only [racialized] person, there are people who will support you if the message resonates with them, and if they feel like what you’re saying is going to benefit the community.
For every person who says they don’t like what you’re doing, there’s going to be a lot more people who are going to support you.
What allowed me to be brave about [receiving hate mail] was the fact that I also got a lot of messages from other people saying, ‘we’re behind you’, ‘we support you’, ‘keep doing what you’re doing’ and ‘don’t let the minority affect you and the mission’. But they won’t say that if they didn’t think the message, I was trying to spread was important. They wouldn’t say that if they didn’t think that the fight against the provincial government was the right kind of fight. Mainly, having a good sense of what your limitations are and knowing that it is good to not drain yourself completely by trying to whack everything that pops up, breaking up issues that will resonate with the community and that will have a huge impact, knowing fully well that there is an unseen community that will support you or that are behind you even as you struggle to navigate those barriers and navigate the reprisals. I always have that feeling that what is going to come to you will come to you, something my grandmother told me a long time ago.
People can’t really take away things that are coming to you, they might try to stop you, but you will get what’s coming to you and you shouldn’t let the barriers deter you from speaking your mind and being yourself. For every person who says they don’t like what you’re doing, there’s going to be a lot more people who are going to support you.
Q. You are a very accomplished academic and a member of numerous boards and councils. Given this, we’re wondering what career accomplishments you are most proud of?
I am proud of all of them! You know I started out in a small village in Nigeria, and I am at the UofA Law School so I’m proud of all of my achievements. Every one of them from going to elementary school until this stage, it’s all great stuff, but the one that is especially profound for me is becoming, I believe, the first Black Vice President social of the graduate student association of the University of Alberta. It is possible that I might actually be the first Black member of the executive of the graduate association of the University of Alberta. That was when I arrived from Nigeria in 2002.
For me, it was one of those things where, you’re new in this place, I'm struggling to be understood. So I’m throwing myself into this situation where people don’t necessarily relate to me in the way that they relate to the kinds of people they are used to seeing every day and I'm running for this important position in the graduate association hierarchy. It was a contested position and I wanted it. That for me was very profound. It actually set me on the path that I am now because it opened up university to me. It allowed me to sit on various boards in the university, to learn about the university, to develop a love for being on campus and being a part of the university structure. I was able to meet people who [were able to] see me in those settings and got to understand me better as a person and to relate to me differently. It allowed me to relate to them in the same way. That’s the one that I'm really proud of because it’s one that came from nothing. There was nothing, at the time, that suggested that that was an obvious role for me. It showed me that if you actually believe in yourself and go for it, it will happen for you.
It goes with that bravery I was talking about. Believing in yourself and stepping into the spaces and trying to create the opportunity where it doesn’t exist and so I’m really proud of that one.
Q. Law school is often a fast-paced and demanding experience that can be hard to navigate. From the perspective of a professor, what are the qualities of the best law students you’ve taught over the years? What advice do you have for students seeking to excel academically and professionally?
The [qualities of the best law students], best in terms of academic achievement: they take disappointment well. They react to disappointment by learning from it and trusting that they didn’t get to law school by mistake.
Law is a different language and people don’t see it that way. When you show up in law school, you’re learning a language. If you don’t have any clue about the language you’re trying to learn, of course it’s going to be difficult to learn it. You’re not only learning how to speak it, you’re learning the cultural codes behind it. There’s a way of being that comes with it, there’s a logic to it. If you’re trying to learn a new language, don’t stop at disappointment. Don’t let the pressures of law school convince you that you are not worth it or that you’re not supposed to be there. There’s a lot of imposter syndrome that happens in law school, a lot of people are telling you you’re not smart. Don’t be swayed by all of that. [If] you have a relationship with your professors, stick to that relationship. Don’t let fear stop you from tapping into the knowledge that they have, that they want to share.
My second point: don’t get caught up in the drama of law school and be careful who you take advice from. Your colleagues are not the best source of advice for how to do well in law school. Even your senior colleagues. Get your advice from the best source [i.e. the professors], but above all enjoy it.
I went to law school at 17 and the very first thing someone told me was that you don’t just go through university, you have to let university go through you. You really have to pick up more than book learning. If you’re in law school, it’s a time to make friends, build relationships, discover the other things that you’re good at, nourish your mind as much as possible, take courses that are interesting in addition to the core classes, and be adventurous. Build relationships with professors and staff at the law school. Expand your network, you know all the usual stuff they tell you but above all: try as much as possible not to let the disappointment hold you back because there’s a ton of it among the A-types that we recruit in law school.
Q. I’d love to give you the final word to say anything to our students that you want them to know and take to heart. And by anything, we mean anything, the floor is yours to speak directly to them, whether that means giving advice or highlighting a quote.
Nobody is going to bring about the kind of change that we need so we’re going to have to do it ourselves. I know it’s a terrible thing to be putting on us, the responsibility and the weight of having to change things that we didn’t create but it is what it is.
I know it can be sort of difficult to think of your role [as a law student] as not just being about you. In many ways it is about you, but it’s also about your community. We really have to understand that we can’t just be here for ourselves, we have to be there for raising our community as far as law goes. There’s a lot of problems in our society that law can help us resolve, but that law, as it stands right now, doesn’t work for Black people. It’s weird to put on ourselves the responsibility of having to think about having to correct that, but it is one of those things that we are in the best position to actually be able to do because we understand the problem, we understand it intimately and we have the means to begin to change it. I’m asking for you to go about doing the things that matter to you in the way they matter to you, but to leave a small portion of your attention, or maybe more than a sizable portion of your attention, if you’re so inclined, to the needs of the community.
Give a little bit of yourself to raising the profile of the Black community in relation to law in this country.
Nobody is going to change it for us. Nobody is going to care about it as much as we do. Nobody is going to bring about the kind of change that we need so we’re going to have to do it ourselves. I know it’s a terrible thing to be putting on us, the responsibility and the weight of having to change things that we didn’t create but it is what it is. If we don’t do it, no one’s going to do it for us so help your fellow students, stick together [and] help your community.