Few lawyers-to-be sleep in subzero temperatures at the base of Mount Everest as part of their education. Rachel Davidson Raycraft (Batten ’20, Law ’20) got there by way of the UVA School of Law’s International Human Rights Project. With alumni support, the yearlong course took students to Nepal over the January term, culminating in an optional hike to the Everest base camp.

For their eight days in-country before the hike, students met with leaders in government, business and nongovernmental organizations in the capital of Kathmandu. Their meetings focused on how Nepal’s decade-long civil war (1996 to 2006) led to a new constitution and new hopes for democracy to improve economic, political and social conditions.

When it comes to such realities as earthquake recovery, pollution and women’s rights, students learned how challenging it is to apply the constitution across cultures as diverse as the capital city and the Himalayan region’s Sherpa villages.

Left:  Rachel Davidson Raycraft (Law ’20, Batten ’20) rests among prayer flags at 18,519 feet. Right:  Natasha Halloran (Col ’18, Law ’21) and Rachel Barnes (Law ’20) experience traditional milk tea. Zeinab Bakilah; Julia Davis

“You can learn as much as you want about a country,” Raycraft says, “but until you walk in the streets that people walk in and see what they see … you cannot get it. ... It’s like, ‘Wow, this is really how human rights manifest in a country.’ ”

Global experiential learning offers students the chance to understand the world at ground level. At UVA, those opportunities are multiplying in a way that lets students tap into worldwide alumni networks.

Far more than sightseeing

UVA’s law school has been orchestrating these trips during the J-term for the past 17 years. During the fall semester of the International Human Rights Project, students study a country’s human rights challenges. Then, they and a few professors head overseas to see those challenges up close. When they return, students prepare research presentations on anything from the plight of migrant workers and responses to large-scale disaster, to the role of civil society and NGOs in development.

This year’s Nepal trip gave the course a different twist. For the first time, the school partnered with alumnus David Burke (Com ’88, Law ’93, Grad ’94), a true believer in global experiential learning. His success as co-founder and CEO of a $19 billion investment management firm has made him eager to give back.

Burke staked the trip in more ways than one. Not only did he cover all costs, but he also introduced students to his personal network, including contacts in environmental law and other career fields.

Left:  Visitors await entry to Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu Valley, part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Right:  Teahouses along the way provide overnight accommodations. Natasha Halloran; Julia Davis

The trip also featured an extended itinerary: After on-the-ground meetings, participants embarked on their choice of a five- or 10-day trek, with the longer route ending at the base camp of Mount Everest before a helicopter flight back to Kathmandu.

A guide and a team doctor flew in just for this portion of the trip, as did several alumni Burke also hosted, including Jenifer Andrasko (Darden ’10), president and CEO of the UVA Alumni Association.

Why a trek? Was this just high-cost sightseeing? Raycraft says no. “The Himalayas are such a profound part of Nepal and Nepali culture,” she says, “that I think [the hike] provided a really valuable cultural, social, human rights lens.”

Camilo Sánchez, director of the International Human Rights Project and the trip’s primary instructor, found the trek to be a surprisingly powerful addition to the course’s usual itinerary.  Laced as it was with both solitary walking and significant conversations with the alumni Burke had invited, he said, the trek gave students time to reflect on human rights issues in different cultures and how they might affect their own future law practices. Sánchez says, “The experience was completely different and way more rich this way.”

The long-trekkers climbed up to 17,598 feet—building strong ties, Raycraft says, in “an intense, battle-bonded way.” They stayed in teahouses along the route, with several beds to a room and a big fire in the middle of the main area, stoked with dried yak dung. Still, even with high-tech sleeping bags and hot water bottles, penetrating cold awaited each morning. “Getting out of the sleeping bag was incredibly painful, more psychologically than anything else,” she says.

UVA’s commitment to transformational travel

Organizer Burke didn’t join the team, but his business partner Mark Brzezinski (Law ’91), former U.S. ambassador to Sweden, co-led with Sánchez. Burke and Brzezinski also supported a 2018 trip involving undergraduates from the McIntire School of Commerce and the College of Arts and Sciences, with stops in South Africa, United Arab Emirates and Hong Kong.

In each country, students interacted with successful investors and leaders—again, from Burke’s personal network—engaging with experts he calls “the Michael Jordans and the Roger Federers of various disciplines.”

“They got the wisdom of 15 or 18 people from all different walks, colors, creeds, backgrounds, nationalities, religions, who were transformational in their own right,” Burke says, “giving these 12 UVA students life advice over a two-week period.”

Burke is considering sponsoring an archaeological experience and is working with Athletic Director Carla Williams on a summer 2020 trip for student athletes.

“When people like Dave Burke and other alumni so unselfishly reach out to create these opportunities for students, we really want to work with them,” says Stephen Mull, vice provost for Global Affairs.

The UVA Law team hikes above Namche Bazaar, the last major village before Everest. Hamna Ahmad

Currently, however, Burke’s trips exist outside the oversight of UVA’s Education Abroad office. According to Mull, that office administers academically credited international opportunities for all UVA schools, regardless of length—ensuring the same standards for curriculum, student selection and financial processing. Over the 2017-18 school year, 3,104 students participated in such programs.

“We have a special obligation as a public university,” Mull says, “to prepare our students to deal with the issues that are coming up in this century that require global engagement.

“Whether it’s migration or climate change or eradicating poverty or dealing with infectious diseases. None of these things know borders.”

In his inauguration address in October, President James E. Ryan (Law ’92) voiced a goal that each undergraduate have some kind of international experience. Says Mull, “His instructions to me are: Make that happen.”

Andrasko hopes the Alumni Association can help, working with more alumni to share their networks with students.

Says Brzezinski, “It doesn’t have to be taking the students halfway around the world. It can be taking the students to a financial institution or a legal institution or a government institution for a day or half a day.”

Raycraft says she never could have imagined the profound impact of her days in Nepal. A grueling, frigid Everest hike hadn’t been a lifelong goal of hers, she says. “Now [it’s] the proudest thing on my bucket list.”

Diane J. McDougall is senior editor of Virginia Magazine.