Heidi Cerneka (MPS ’91, JD ’17) has devoted much of her life working on behalf of the most vulnerable. As an advocate for women’s rights, she has traveled the world fighting for those who are homeless, addicted to drugs, and incarcerated.

“I think I was born with an ‘it’s not fair’ gene, which has steered my life toward causes that are dedicated to creating a more just world,” says Heidi Cerneka, who has spent more than two decades working on behalf of women in Latin America.  

“In my current work in Nairobi, Kenya, where I advocate for incarcerated women and refugees as a Maryknoll Lay Missioner, I choose to honor the unique story of every incarcerated woman I meet,” says Cerneka. “It helps me to identify the global truths about women and crime that stem from poverty, injustice, the imbalance of power, and oppressive systems.”

Cerneka earned a master’s degree in pastoral theology from Loyola University Chicago and served as a campus minister at the University for years. After 20 years working as an advocate for women and justice, she decided to return Loyola to earn a JD degree. Here she shares her experiences as a lawyer working abroad.

Why did you choose Loyola for law school?

I have worked as an advocate for incarcerated women and chemically dependent women for many years, and I wanted to add valuable legal training to my skills and passion. I knew it would make me an even better advocate for global justice. Loyola was a logical choice because of the school’s Jesuit commitment to social justice and its Chicago location.

Describe your work in Kenya.

My past experience helping women in North and South America has taught me that the biggest issues women face are poverty and economic justice. I engage directly in the prison with women who are serving sentences and awaiting trial, and find that the vast majority need help with their lives, not punishment. In Kenya, I work with the legal clinic inside the women’s prison. A unique paralegal program trains prisoners and guards to prepare women for trial and to file appeals. Kenya does not have public defenders, and because most prisoners cannot afford a lawyer, they end up defending themselves at trial.

I also work with Jesuit Refugee Services. Kenya has almost 500,000 refugees and we advocate in individual cases, at policy levels, incorporating UN documents, Organization of African Unity commitments, and Kenyan law.

“Loyola did not just teach me about laws and how to pass the bar, it gave me a strong foundation for my work as an advocate”

How has Loyola prepared you for your career?

Loyola did not just teach me about laws and how to pass the bar, it gave me a strong foundation for my work as an advocate.  I learned about the law, how it is applied, and why it is important. I enrolled in the basic courses that I needed and had the flexibility to tailor classes for my area focus: human rights, civil rights, women and justice, and criminal law. My learning style is more “big picture” rather than facts and details. Working with prisoners and refugees requires a fundamental understanding of legislation and administrative law, and I am continually struck by how I am able to understand, analyze, and apply the law to specific cases.

How has your legal education helped you to advocate for incarcerated women? 

Many people already thought I was a lawyer because I worked in advocacy and criminal justice, and most of the people I worked with are lawyers. A legal education gave me analytical skills and the legal knowledge to be a better advocate.  Additionally, I have more confidence and credibility when I dig into both individual and policy issues.

What advice do you have for those interested in working abroad?

Experience, experience, experience! No one starts off working in international law with a UN post. There are many highly qualified professionals seeking international human rights jobs around the world. You have to make yourself stand out with strong international experience. Language skills also offer you an advantage.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

I know I must tread carefully to avoid imposing my bias and my culture, because I am working in another culture with a different legal system. While Kenya is also based on British common law, it is not the same. Another challenge is working with limited resources, such as no public defenders, and the difficulty of accessing court cases, because most are handwritten in the lower courts.

What’s next for you?

I am going to use the national and international skills I have in legal advocacy to defend human and civil rights at the Texas/Mexico border.

Loyola offers a rich array of curricular and extra-curricular programs focused in social justice. Learn more about our JD degree program.