Forging a family

At Harvard Law, Chinelo Krystal Okonkwo ’21 has realized the power of community

As Chinelo Krystal Okonkwo ’21 knows, there’s the family you’re born into and the family you forge. The president of the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) and the fourth of five siblings, she credits both with helping her navigate life and law school – even as she has extended those benefits to others.

The daughter of Nigerian immigrants, Okonkwo was raised to value education and to set her sights on a professional career. “As the daughter of immigrants, you’ve got to be a doctor, a lawyer, or — if you’re lucky — an engineer.” Her father and two of her three older siblings were lawyers — a third is a doctor. While Okonkwo, a Beyoncé fan, loves music and considered a career working for a record label, she always knew she wanted to go to law school.

“I had dreamed of going to Harvard,” she said. “But it seemed more like one of those things you dream of.”

But, after graduating from the University of Virginia as an Echols scholar with a degree in economics, Okonkwo certainly didn’t see herself going to graduate school right away. “I’d been in this bubble of school, school, school for years, and not ever really living on my own,” she said. Instead, she took a position at Deloitte as a project controller for two years. The result was enlightening. “The first year I enjoyed what I did, but I also saw that it was going to become pretty rote pretty quickly,” she said. “I wasn’t going to be challenged the way that I like to be.”

At that point, Okonkwo realized, it was time to pursue her dream of going to law school — and her family came to her aid. “My brother Christopher really stayed on top of me during the application process,” she said. He also urged her into an SEO internship for aspiring law students from underrepresented groups. “I don’t know who was more excited about me going to Harvard, me or him,” she said. Arriving at Harvard Law, she found others willing to help, from the Board of Student Advisers (BSA) to the BLSA, groups she describes as “lighthouses for students.”

“I thought I should try everything that I wanted to try and take in as much information as I could,” she recalled. Her interests in music and sports — Okonkwo is an Atlanta Falcons fan — also drew her to the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment. “I really wanted to explore my interest in sports and entertainment,” said Okonkwo, who spent a semester writing about the implications of the name change of the Washington Football Team.

Through it all, she recognized the community that has made these options possible.  “I love all those things that I’ve done, but I don’t know if I would have been able to do any of those things,” without the guidance of these organizations and her fellow students. “I was trying to figure out what was important to me, and they played a role in that.”

Her brother Christopher passed away in the summer before her second year, a loss that has made his support and encouragement — and that of all her champions — more vivid. “I feel like I wouldn’t have gotten into Harvard without having those support systems, having siblings who laid out the steps to me,” she said. “I realized you always need that.”

That earlier experience also led her to become a BSA member and to join the BLSA. “The role they played for me was really important,” she said. “The same way that someone helped me, I wanted to have the opportunity to do that for others.”

As the president of BLSA, Okonkwo became a mentor and a leader at a particularly challenging, yet important time. Looking back at the past year of the Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd, she noted, “this huge civil rights movement wasn’t new, but it has captivated the nation.” It also saw heightened engagement with both member students and the administration on the importance of having a professor of critical race theory and an office on diversity and equity, what is now the Office of Community Engagement, Equity, and Belonging.

Her role as a leader and a mentor was also complicated by COVID. “How do you navigate being a first-year during a pandemic?” Okonkwo asked.

Meeting virtually, she and her team developed new programming and forged new ways to build connection and provide support despite the physical distance—organizing 1L Job Talks and Exam Prep, pairing students with upper classmen who had their 1L professors, and hosting the first virtual job fair, which served all students.

Okonkwo also sought out ways for BLSA members to gather and network, holding conversations about resumé building and exploring public interest law, much like they had before. “Nothing’s completely ever the same as being in person,” Okonkwo acknowledged. Her goal was simple: “Let’s make sure we get to everything that we normally would provide.”

They even managed to reconfigure BLSA’s annual retreat into an online event. The Cape Cod escape and karaoke parties of previous years were replaced by Zoom cocktail hours, but the spirit was the same. “Just to show people that there’s a community here and there’s space to be here.”

BLSA “really is a community,” she said. More than that, “we’re more resilient than we ever thought we had to be.”

What the future holds for Okonkwo is still unclear. “COVID really reset things for me,” she said. But she’s looking forward to studying for the bar and then going on to Davis Polk. “I can’t say where I’ll be 10 years from now,” she said. “Maybe I’ll love law firm life, and maybe the right opportunity in the entertainment world will open up, then that might be a path.”

What remains, Okonkwo said, is “my interest in what’s going on, not just with people at Harvard, but in the community in general.

“You think back and you ask, how did you get to the places that you got to? I think of the energy that people poured into me and I hope to pour into others.”