Students' experiences

Interview with Dr. Karolina Kocemba (European University Institute; Master's cohort 2016-17), a socio-legal scholar researching human rights and legal mobilization: “In Oñati, I found my voice as socio-legal scholar”

Karolina Kocemba is an Oñati IISL alumna, having belonged in the International Master's cohort from 2016-17. At the time of this interview (February 2024), she had returned to the IISL as Master's teacher. She has participated in several workshops, as well.

Karolina KocembaKarolina, you teach the "Global Justice and Transnational Legal Mobilization" course with Dr. Michał Stambulski. What are your first impressions of Oñati?

It is an exceptional place for me. It's not my first visit to Oñati. I came here for the first time in 2016 for my Master's studies. After that, I returned several times to participate in workshops. 

Studying at the IISL was a turning point in my life

What was your experience as a Master's student?

This place shaped me as a scholar and influenced my academic identity and perception of law - now, I'm always looking at its context. Before coming to Oñati, I studied law and public administration in Poland. But I felt something was missing there; I was not completely satisfied. My later supervisor and mentor - Adam Czarnota, who was the director in Oñati - encouraged me to come here and study the sociology of law. And it was a turning point in my life. 

How so? Can you elaborate a little more?

I was able to learn about the sociology of law, but more importantly, I found my voice. Even though our teachers were world-class scholars, we had discussions in a very inclusive atmosphere every day, and we were encouraged to speak, formulate theses, and argue. At that time, I was so impressed by this interactive way of teaching that I decided to teach such courses as a teacher. It was also important to learn how to do empirical research, which I did in my dissertation and continue to do in my current research. Oñati, and the anthropology classes in particular, also influenced my dissertation topic on legal education. I studied how space affects law students' interactions, what attitudes it shapes in them, and what it can symbolize. I found that space significantly impacts the possibility of a dialogue in the classroom and, indirectly, on democratic attitudes. To keep it short, I'll reveal to you that the space at Oñati is "friendly" and promotes discussions.

Our course aims to reflect on the role of international law and transnational legal mobilization; we will offer this course again in 2024/25

Can you tell us about your current research?

In my dissertation, I focused on law students, while now I am studying their graduates - lawyers - and their actions, specifically legal mobilization on reproductive rights cases. I am conducting this research project as a post-doc at the European University Institute and as a re:constitution Fellow. I also discuss it in our course in Oñati - we devote a session to court cases and legal strategies used to reverse reproductive rights while discussing these events' social and political context.

Please tell us more about your course in the Master's programme that you're teaching with Michał Stambulski. 

In this course, we focus mainly on what happens before a change in the law, whether it is through court cases or political pressure. We talk about recent events, explain what legal mobilization is, what litigation strategies are used, and what the role of global social movements and transnational corporations is. During the course, we discuss cases from different countries and jurisdictions so that students can "take them apart" and learn what factors influence legal change, what are the specific legal strategies and tools, and in what contexts they can be used. In general, the course aims to reflect on the role and importance of international law and transnational legal mobilization for global justice. We will offer this course again next year.

What makes Oñati unique is the egalitarian atmosphere and the small number of students

Is Oñati and the IISL different from other institutions?

What makes Oñati unique is undoubtedly the egalitarian atmosphere and the relatively small number of students - we have 12 this year. Thanks to this, the students have time to talk and discuss issues that are important to them. The students come from different countries and backgrounds - not only law, which enriches the discussion and allows us to see other perspectives. It is also an opportunity for personal contact with great and established scholars from all over the world, who are usually willing to advise on how to direct one's career and help expand the network in the field the student is interested in. These friendships continue long after graduation - from my own example, I can say that teachers from Oñati supported me with their letters of recommendation when I applied for certain academic positions, were guests at seminars I organized, or gave me invaluable feedback on my research. Also, lifelong friendships are formed among the students, facilitated by living in a charming 18th-century mansion.  

This Master's provides many opportunities after graduation

What would you say to someone who is thinking about doing a Master's, and why should they choose this Master's?

First of all, this is a Master's for people with interdisciplinary interests because it is a place "where social meets legal." Just look at the range and programs of courses that are offered here. Second, it provides many opportunities after graduation. Of course, the default path is the academic one and a PhD because it prepares you perfectly for that through discussions, presentations, research, and writing essays. On the other hand, critical thinking, communication skills, and sensitivity to social issues provide an excellent background not only for work in the third sector (NGOs) but also for legal practice. Therefore, this is an exceptional Master's program that I can recommend with a clear conscience.


More testimonials:

Kendall Gail, USA, Master's cohort 2023-24

Read the transcription:

Hi, my name is Kendall Gail, I’m from the United States of America. I have a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University's School of Education and Social Policy. I worked for two years as a paralegal at a Chicago law firm before coming to Oñati.

I learned about the program through a partner at the law firm I worked at, who was an alumnae, and I was extremely interested in the program because I had done some socio-legal work as an undergrad but hadn't pursued it after graduation.

I'd never seen a specific master's like this with such a specific focus on socio-legal content that was dynamic and adapted with the changing world so the courses for each master's, they have similar themes but are different based on the professors that come to teach them, and that was really intriguing to me and said that the IISL really cares about keeping up with changing trends and not just teaching the same philosophers and theories over and over, and that was really important to me because the field of law and the field of sociology are so dynamic and constantly changing.

I've learned so much from being a student in this master's, both academically and generally about the world and other cultures. Academically I was able to strengthen my background in more theories about law and sociology, which I hadn't had an exposure to, but I also got to learn from my 11 other classmates and their legal systems. In my cohort, we had 10 different countries represented across 12 students, and it was amazing to learn from their experiences and their backgrounds. All of us were so diverse in what we're interested in studying and where we come from, so I feel like I learned so much about not just about different socio-legal systems but also about how my viewpoint may be different from someone else's, and that has only made me a better researcher and scholar.

That's another reason why anyone from the US should come to Oñati, because sometimes in the American academia machine you get so focused on the American bubble, especially when it comes to the American legal system, because it's so broad and so all-consuming. Coming to Oñati was a great way for me to step out of that bubble for a little bit and be able to look at my own system with different eyes and a bit more critically, after hearing from other professors, students and researchers.

Leopoldo Cruz Balbuena, Mexico, Master's cohort 2016-17

I came from Mexico seven years ago. I was a corporate lawyer working part-time for my university, and the professors understood that there was a lack of professors within sociology of law, so they proposed that I come here to a very challenging Master’s degree. The idea was to get the Master’s and go for a PhD at the UPV/EHU. During the Master’s degree you learn exactly the difference between law in books and law in reality. You’re challenged to think differently, you’re challenged to interact with people from all around the world. I met very interesting people: my classmates, my professors, the visiting scholars were really inspiring, and they have inspired me to pursue different things. Now I’m doing a lot of things about Artificial Intelligence. I would recommend this Master’s degree only to people who are open minded, who want to have a challenge, who are willing to change the ideas we have about law and society, and to people who obviously are pursuing an academic career; this is a very important degree to get yourself into an academic career. The toughness of the degree makes you grow every single day. There’s no week that you end up being the same. With every professor you learn so many things in just two weeks, you make relationships for life, and I think that’s very important about the degree.

Watch Leopoldo's full testimonial on this video.


Ihintza Palacín, France, Master’s cohort 2014-15 



I am from the Northern Basque Country, located in France, where I studied Law. During my studies I had lots of questions that were not answered by the "traditional" legal studies. This is why I decided to go to Oñati: it was offering a fresh take on Law from what I had learned during my undergraduate degree.

The sociology law and socio-legal studies ask questions that go beyond a positivistic approach to law. It studies the relationship between law and society, the interconnections, the gaps, the evolutions… Having worked in the area of linguistic minorities, I am particularly interested in the connections between norm users and the legal framework.

I enjoyed the variety of the programme: it exposed to an assortment of topics and approaches. This helped me broaden my view of the law and of the socio-legal studies. Indeed, I discovered my education in law was rather Eurocentric, and the students, visiting scholars and professors really broadened my horizon.

During the thesis writing stage, I learned the basics of how to conduct a research, how to communicate with a supervisor and how to communicate my research.

As a Basque myself, it was nice to live in another area of the Basque Country. In addition, living with students and visiting scholars from different backgrounds, countries and cultures was enriching. We also took the opportunity to taste different cuisines.

I would definitively recommend this programme, specially to those who are curious, ask lots of questions and need a new discipline to answer them. The atmosphere is also intense yet unique, where for a short amount of time you find yourself surrounded by sociolegal experts and students discussing sociolegal topics drinking coffee in the Oñati main square. It is quite special.  

This also poses a challenge: since we share our “work” and “free” time with more or less the same people, I would recommend take some time off, and to not talk about the studies with your fellow students. Luckily, despite being a small town, Oñati is an active town, with a nice offer of activities.

I completed the Masters in 2015. After that, I became a pre-doctoral researcher and the European University Institute, where I completed my PhD in 2022. I am currently both teaching at a Master’s Degree on transborder and inter-state law (at the UPPA university), and working on a cross-border academic project in the same institution.



Ursus Eijkelenberg, Netherlands, Master’s cohort 2015-16 




For Ursus´ account of the Master´s programme, see the video link: URSUS EIJKELENBERG - YouTube



For 12 more students’ experiences, see this document.

For more information: 

Master Coordination Team

IISL Master Coordination Team
Avenida de la Universidad, 8
Apartado 28
20560 Oñati (Gipuzkoa) - Spain
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