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Cecil Yongo accepted to Harvard Law Graduate Programme

Cecil Yongo, a graduate assistant at the Strathmore Law School. He will be joining the 2020 Harvard Law School cohort in September 2019

A debate between Cecil Yongo and Harrison Otieno at the Strathmore Law School (SLS) sparked off an idea for a research paper that sent Cecil to the Harvard Law School’s Institute for Global Law and Policy Annual Conference in 2018. “A colleague organized a debate on the death penalty. We can’t really know who won. I am sure I did but Harrison says he won. By the end of the debate though, I had conceptualized a paper. I then saw a call for papers on the Harvard website, sent the paper and it got accepted.”

Cecil’s presentation on Transformative Constitutions examined the use of preparatory documents such as the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission Report (for Kenya) and the Multi Party Negotiating Process Reports (for South Africa) in rights decisions, using the Federalist Papers (the United States) as a case study.

189 out of 2000 applicants

He will be going back to Harvard Law School in September 2019, this time as a Masters of Laws (LL.M) student after securing a slot among the 189 out of nearly 2000 applicants from about 70 countries that will make up the LL.M cohort of 2020.

His love for writing, books and research has led him here.  “I’ve had lecturers who transmitted their passion for academia and research to me. I have also always liked writing and I am comfortable surrounded by books and ideas, so research writing became fairly automatic.”

During his time at the Law School, he was the founding Editor-in-Chief of the first two volumes of the Strathmore Law Review and worked as an Editor with the Strathmore University Press, playing a key role in the publication of a variety of texts. “My time at the Law Review wasn’t easy as we had to figure things out for the first time. Now we are pleased it is stable being in its 5th volume.”

Luxembourg and Botswana

2018 was a good year for him. Apart from the visit to Harvard, he presented two other papers: Reconsidering the East African Court of Justice’s Nyong’o decision and its Aftermath’ which was presented at the Supranational Courts PhD seminar and conference at the University of Luxembourg, and an ‘Overview of the State of the Right to Administrative Justice in Kenya’ presented at the Workshop on Administrative Justice Reform in Eastern and Southern Africa, in Gaborone, Botswana.

What was it like, being among those steeped in academia and research for years? “Most of those who presented at the conferences were Professors and PhD students. They were impressed but not overly wowed by the fact that I was not yet a graduate student. I liked that what impressed them was my idea and not my age.”

Oldest higher education institution in the US 

His choice of Harvard cannot be disputed. Harvard is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States, established in 1636. It was named after the College’s first benefactor, the young minister John Harvard of Charlestown, who upon his death in 1638 left his library and half his estate to the institution.  The institution boasts of notable alumni: Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, and several Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. Some of its alumni in Kenya include Prof. Makau Mutua and Makueni Governor, Kivutha Kibwana.

For Cecil, the faculty drew him to the institution. “The possibility of having Prof. Mike Klarman for Constitutional History, Prof Cass Sunstein for Behavioral Economics and Law or Samantha Power, who was President Obama’s special envoy to the UN and has written a wonderful book called ‘A Problem from Hell’, was incredibly appealing.”

The Financial Aid Office also assisted him in the application process. “Harvard Law School offers one of the most generous scholarship grants to its LL.M students and I am grateful to Kevin Muchemi, the Financial Aid Manager; because of him, I didn’t have to worry about the cost of sending my transcripts to Cambridge. That really helped as I was already pretty broke by then!”

On March 14th this year, he received an email requesting him to check the status of his application on the portal. “When I read the email, I had to spend nearly 15 minutes calming myself down to a level where I could check the portal. When I opened it and saw the word ‘Congratulations’ first, that was enough; I could not contain myself. I immediately called my mother; she has been a pillar through it all.”

Failure hard to bear

Despite the successes, Cecil has had failures as well. He has had papers rejected by journals and he recalls a moment when he saw grades that were not too appealing on his transcript. “It may seem that some people only succeed and never seem to fail. But I’ve gotten some pretty bad grades – 55%, 53% and 49%. My proposals for the Stanford Junior Researchers Conference have also been rejected twice now. I thought that after the Harvard conference, it would be easy to get into it, but I still received a rejection email this year. My research papers have also been rejected by the Oxford Journal of International Constitutional Law.”

From his interaction with students in his role as a Graduate Assistant at SLS which he took up after graduating with a Second Class, upper division LLB degree, he realises that failure can be hard to bear. “The world seems to come to an end for some students when they experience failure. It is important for them to know that their value is more than their academic achievements.”

Current research work

Through his story, he would like the students to see that it is possible to get into any prestigious university. He notes that he is not the first SLS student to get accepted. “Edward Paranta, a graduate of SLS is already there; it made a difference to know someone who got in.”

As he waits to join Harvard Law, he is working on a paper seeking to review the performance on the Kenyan Supreme Court, which turns ten in 2021, vis-a-vis the expectation that the public had of the Court. “I would like to have it as a book, written for the lay person, though getting funding is a challenge.”


This article was written by Wambui Gachari.

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