On May 12, 2015, Marla Borkson was in the back of a crowded Tempo — a small yellow van used for public transportation in Nepal. The van was overcrowded and weaving through traffic on the streets of Kathmandu. When the ride became bumpy, Borkson thought it was due to their reckless driver, but when the van nearly flipped over, she realized something else was happening.
It was an earthquake. Borkson managed to get out of the van, taking with her two hysterical school girls, who were clinging to her, crying, asking if they were going to die. Around her, buildings were cracking, and the earth was heaving so violently that the three of them could barely stand.
“I definitely did not think we were going to make it for a second,” says Borkson, a Class of 2017 law student at Washington University School of Law. The three of them, however, did survive the major quake, which was considered an aftershock of a slightly larger quake that had hit the same area on April 25, 2015. In fact, Borkson had come to Nepal to help with relief efforts in the wake of the first quake after she heard about it while she was in St. Louis studying for her 1L finals.
“I was devastated,” Borkson recalls. She had lived in Nepal for five months in 2014. “I was told that all my friends were dead. I couldn’t focus on finals. I couldn’t do anything.”
She spoke to Karen L. Tokarz, the Charles Nagel Professor of Public Interest Law & Public Service and professor of African and African-American studies, about what she was going through. With the help of Gautam N. Yadama, assistant vice chancellor for international affairs and a professor in the Brown School, Tokarz helped Borkson get back to Nepal within a week where she volunteered with the American Nepal Medical Foundation.
“The main group that I worked with were doctors in Nepal,” Borkson says. “They pretty much devoted 24/7 to trying to help this earthquake relief. These people were incredible.”
The Nepali doctors were particularly interested in building and repairing medical outposts so that people outside of the major cities (most of the population) could have better access to medical care. Borkson, who studies international law and is a research assistant at Washington University’s Whitney R. Harris World Law Institute, met with contractors, negotiated memoranda of understanding, reviewed Nepali building codes and checked contracts.
The legal efforts required Borkson to work closely with Tribhuvan University’s law department and several other local organizations. Since she knew Nepali, Borkson also helped give public health talks and organized health camps in rural areas.
Despite the scare of being in the middle of the second earthquake (this one a 7.3-magnitude quake), aftershocks and the U.S. Department of State telling Borkson’s parents she was missing when she wasn’t, Borkson stayed in Nepal for May and June. In July, she went to Chengdu, China, to work as a consular-affairs intern. When that experience was over, she returned to Nepal for a few additional weeks to continue volunteering. She got back to St. Louis only a few hours before her 2L classes started.
“The experience helped me focus on why I am in law school,” Borkson says. “I think a lot of people lose sight of what’s really the big picture, what’s important. And I think being able to go to Nepal really re-focused me after my first year.”
Borkson decided to go to law school during her first trip to Nepal in 2014 when she was working to help low-income Nepali schools implement a new education program. It was then that she first fell in love with Nepal, learned the language and realized that she should study law.
“I saw that in the INGO world, the people that were making the most effective changes were the people who understood the law,” she says. “I’ve never had to think twice about water or homes or food, but I have friends who are living in squalor in Nepal and it’s frustrating. I think that’s the beauty though of law is that you can help change that.”