Senior Profile/Law School Grad, Pitt GPSA President Nyasha Hungwe Hopes to Spur Social Change

Issue Date: 
April 4, 2012
Nyasha HungweNyasha Hungwe

Growing up in Zimbabwe’s capital city, Harare, Nyasha Hungwe was fascinated by planes. He fell in love with the idea of flight and set his sights on becoming a professional pilot—until he learned that aviation requires a comprehensive background in math and science. Even at the tender age of 12, Hungwe knew he did not excel in those two subjects.

So he mapped out another path, aided by his natural gift of gab.

“I was told that I talked a lot, and that I should be a lawyer,” said Hungwe, who graduates today with a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Law. “By the time I was a teenager, I started reading books and exploring a future in law. I found that some of the people who brought about the most fundamental social change in our time were lawyers: Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Thurgood Marshall.”

In 1999, while the Hungwe family was on vacation in Disney World, Nyasha’s father promised him that he could attend college outside of Zimbabwe if he studied hard. But the road to earning an education in the United States hasn’t been without obstacles.

“My father went to great lengths to put my brother and me through school,” Hungwe said, adding that his father sold several properties to finance his education. “To this day, I don’t know how he managed. He put me on a plane and said, ‘Study and work hard.’ I’ve always had my mind set; I knew I’d go to law school,” Hungwe said.

While finishing his undergraduate degree from Elizabethtown College as a double major in philosophy and economics, Hungwe applied to almost 30 law schools across the United States, including Pitt’s School of Law.

“Pitt was the only school that included a personal handwritten note in my acceptance letter,” Hungwe said. “It really had an impact on me. I came to Pittsburgh to visit campus, and it was the only campus visit I made because I knew this is where I wanted to be.”

When Hungwe entered Pitt’s School of Law in 2009, he immediately joined the Student Bar Association and became a class representative. The year he spent representing 87 of his fellow classmates was an eye-opener in terms of realizing the difficulties of enacting change.

“I came up with a bunch of initiatives, but none of them really took off,” Hungwe said.

After his first year of law school, he worked in the Harrisburg office of Pepper Hamilton, a law firm with a national and international practice that provides corporate, litigation, and regulatory legal services. Hungwe vividly remembers the first assignment he was given that summer: Research double indemnity clauses in accidental death and dismemberment insurance across four different states for an upcoming case.

During his second year of law school, while taking a heavy course load, Hungwe decided to run for president of Pitt’s Graduate and Professional Students Assembly (GPSA).

To help spread his message and to talk to as many graduate students on campus, Hungwe contacted every graduate student organization and association on Pitt’s campus and asked to speak directly to his fellow graduate students.

“I took the age-old grassroots approach to campaigning. I ran around introducing myself and talking to everyone I could meet,” he said. “Very rarely do you get an opportunity to tell people what you are about, what you are interested in, and have them listen to your ideas.”

Most newly elected GPSA presidents prepare during the summer for their first term of office in the fall. But Hungwe spent that summer as an associate with Pepper Hamilton, this time in the firm’s Philadelphia office. Between poring over briefs and treatises, he used Skype in the evenings to virtually attend meetings with GPSA officers and full Assembly Board meetings with representatives from student governments from each of the schools at Pitt.

“I had a lot of grandiose ideas after I got elected. I had hundreds of things I wanted to achieve during my yearlong term,” Hungwe recalled.

One of his goals was to bring an important political figure to GPSA’s signature event, Pancakes and Politics, an early-morning breakfast discussion involving students and an important political figure. Hungwe set his sights on inviting Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett to campus to discuss the proposed state budget that includes substantial cuts to Pitt’s state funding.

After making a number of calls to Corbett’s office, Hungwe said he was thrilled when the governor’s office responded, offering March 16 as a date that Corbett could come to Oakland to speak at the Pancakes and Politics event.

“We saw the governor attending our event as an excellent opportunity to educate him from the student perspective and, in turn, for him to share his information with us,” Hungwe said. “I wanted to start a meaningful dialogue between the governor and students, one that doesn’t just end after Pancakes and Politics. If we can inform him of our position, and try to persuade him to keep state-related university funding intact, Pitt stands to get better representation in Harrisburg.”

With his term as GPSA president drawing to a close, Hungwe’s political future is just beginning. Though he isn’t an American citizen, he said he hasn’t ruled out working for a future political campaign or for the government in either the United States or Zimbabwe.

“One of my most memorable moments at Pitt was the two minutes before I introduced Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, who introduced Governor Corbett,” he said. “Before I got up and set my notes on the podium, I was standing there between these dignified and powerful people thinking, ‘How did I get here? Don’t trip. Compose yourself.’ Those moments remind you that you’re a small part of a very big world. You have the potential to do really big things.”

Now that he’s graduated from law school, Hungwe will turn his focus to his immediate future: taking the Pennsylvania and New Jersey Bar exams and joining Pepper Hamilton’s Philadelphia office in September.

And he received a few pointers for the bar exams from none other than the governor himself.

“Governor Corbett said, ‘Study for it, treat it like an every day 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job. Study and you’ll do fine, but don’t over study,’” Hungwe recalled.

Hungwe said hard work and dedication, paired with the opportunities he’s had at Pitt, have led him to the path he is on today. He said he wants to stay involved at Pitt and help others have the opportunities he’s experienced, especially those in his home country.

“I’d love to help connect Pitt with a university in Zimbabwe,” Hungwe said. “Perhaps an exchange program for students to be given the same opportunities I’ve had here in Pittsburgh and to open the channel for Pitt students to benefit from what Zimbabwe has to offer.”