Sitting in her middle school history class, Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia was captivated by law and its power to inspire social change. Now she’s at the forefront of the classroom instead of in the seats — sculpting the next generation of immigration lawyers as the founder and director of the Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Penn State Law.
Wadhia, the associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion at Penn State Law, is this year’s recipient of the Centre Foundation’s Mimi Barash Coppersmith Women in Leadership Award, which recognizes women in the community who have made a significant impact through their leadership.
“Winning this award makes me feel whole because it brings together my professional and personal life and how I wish to center the community in the work that I do as well as in the way that I live,” Wadhia said.
Molly Kunkel, executive director for the Centre Foundation, said that Wadhia reflected the values of the award due to her work progressing equity, inclusion and immigration rights both at Penn State and throughout Centre County.
“She’s very well-known regionally and nationally for the work that she does in her profession, but one of the things that we have been really thankful for is that she’s taken this work and shared her expertise and knowledge with the community by working with local immigrants and community organizations,” Kunkel said.
From an early age, Wadhia felt passionately about issues of injustice and aspired to become a civil rights lawyer. In 1997, when she enrolled at Georgetown University to earn her J.D. she decided to take a course on immigration law and was immediately engrossed by the subject.
She began her career in private practice working on family- and employment- based immigration cases before a major world event inspired her to pivot her career trajectory in a different direction.
“I was really struck and impacted by the events of 9/11 and its impact on immigration policy, especially as it relates to Muslim, Arab and South Asian communities,” Wadhia said. “My passions sharpened when I saw how policies targeted specific communities.”
Wadhia transitioned out of private practice and became the deputy director for legal affairs for the National Immigration Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. She was also involved in legislative debates and advocacy with federal agencies to propose immigration reforms.
At the same time, she was teaching at the American University Washington College of Law and the Howard University School of Law, where she fell in love with teaching — a passion that would ultimately lead her to Penn State.
In 2008, Wadhia and her family made the move to State College so she could join Penn State Law as the Samuel Weiss Faculty Scholar and Clinical Professor of Law. Since then, she has worked to build the Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic and form meaningful relationships within the community.
“I can’t imagine detaching my identity with the clinic from my community; there’s an integration that feels very wholesome,” Wadhia said.
The Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Penn State is an in-house clinic that provides law students with hands-on clinical training in immigration law. Through the clinic, Wadhia supervises students in three areas: community outreach and education, legal support in individual immigration cases and policy work for institutional clients, often nonprofit organizations.
The goal is for students to acquire the skills to become an effective immigration attorney and advocate, which she said requires “a combination of legal excellence and multidimensional lawyer-ing.”
When reflecting on her work, Wadhia said one of the most rewarding moments is watching students develop, excel and one day become a colleague in the immigration field. She added that dozens of alums from the clinic are now practicing immigration attorneys all over the country.
“Another reward is the individuals who are helped — survivors of crime, those seeking protection because of fear of return or persecution in their home country,” Wadhia said. “Each individual act can make a difference in a person’s life or future.”
The Mimi Barash Coppersmith Women in Leadership Fund was created in 2017 by Barbara Palmer to honor her friend Coppersmith, who is the founder of Town & Gown Magazine and mentor to other women in the Centre County community.
In honor of the recipient each year, a $2,500 grant is given to a local nonprofit of her choice. This year, Wadhia chose Centre Volunteers in Medicine, which provides free medical and dental services for the community.
Coppersmith, who sits on the committee for choosing the recipient, said that Wadhia embodies the spirit of the award due to her ability to “walk the walk and talk the talk on controversial issues,” as well as her ability to inspire other women to pursue positive change locally.
“She has provided remarkable spirit and courage to stay the course and do what’s right for humanity, and she is a great adviser to people who have come to this country and need help,” Coppersmith, 88, said. “I think she sets an example for all of us.”