The curious case of Vanessa Kubota: Spiritual journey leads to ‘magical place’ at ASU Law

By

Nicole Almond Anderson

In his 1985 Sports Illustrated article “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch,” author George Plimpton revealed the stunning story of a New York Mets prospect who was a Harvard dropout, spoke 10 languages, was a maestro on the French horn, and had studied with a Tibetan lama to learn how to throw an unfathomable 168 mph fastball.

It seemed too incredible to be true. And, in fact, it was. The article was merely an elaborate April Fools Day hoax, timed to an April 1 publication date. There’s no such thing as a Sidd Finch, as any reader should have realized.

Or is there?

Meet Vanessa Kubota, a second-year law student at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. She doesn’t play baseball or the French horn. But languages? Yes, she speaks a few. And she’s learned a thing or two from Tibetan monks.

“I had hippie parents, total hippie parents,” the Southern California native said. “They were all into yoga and meditation, so I grew up exposed to Tibetan monks and surrounded by them since I was a baby.”

Her parents attended yoga and meditation classes with the monks and would bring Kubota with them. It developed into an extended family, and when Kubota’s father passed away when she was just 11 years old, a Tibetan lama took her under his wing.

“He treated me like a daughter, and he would teach me meditation and about his culture,” she said.

Kubota had already been exposed to the Tibetan language enough to speak it, so the lama began speaking to her only in Tibetan.

“That really inspired me when I learned about his struggles and the escape from Tibet, and just how hard it was for them to lose their country,” she said. “And that got me really interested in the language. It’s a very beautiful language. There’s a lot of culture and a lot of poetry, and it’s unlike any other language I’ve learned.”

photo of Vanessa Kubota

Vanessa Kubota, JD candidate, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. 

Kubota attended UC-Santa Barbara as an undergrad, majoring in religious studies with a specialization in south Asian religion and languages. After graduating, she got a Fulbright scholarship to attend the Central Institute for Higher Tibetan Studies — an accredited university in north India. All the courses were taught in Tibetan or Hindi, but having spent numerous summers studying at monasteries in India and Nepal, Kubota was fluent enough to be the first American enrolled as a full-time student.

It was there that she further honed her Tibetan — with lessons she learned outside the classroom.

“My best language teachers were the Tibetan girls in the dormitory,” she said. “They would talk super fast in this sing-songy cadence — I call it Tibetan valley-girl speak. And compared to them, I sounded too stuffy. So living with them, I learned to speak in a more relaxed and informal way, how the girls really talk. And now when Tibetan speakers hear me, they tell me that if they didn’t see my face, they would have assumed I was a Tibetan girl.”

Kubota will be the first to admit that she doesn’t look like the typical Tibetan speaker.

“It’s funny because I’m a pale-skinned, half-Russian redhead, so it’s funny to see people’s reaction,” she said.

In fact, one time when she was on a group trip in Tibet and China, she played coy and utilized the deception that her looks provide.

“At first I pretended I didn’t speak any Tibetan, and the tour guides were saying some crude things about American tourists. Then in the middle of the trip, I just started bursting into fluent Tibetan and the tour guides nearly fainted,” she said with a laugh. “And then they thought I was some type of spy, so I had to tell them, ‘No, I was just messing with you.’”

She had been planning to pursue a PhD, but she began working as a translator with a nonprofit organization founded by the former deputy secretary of the Dalai Lama.

“Because there are so few people who speak Tibetan, I stayed in that position after my Fulbright,” she said. “And that’s basically what I did until I went to law school.”

In addition to English and Tibetan, she also speaks some Hindi and Mandarin, and can read Sanskrit.

“I’m kind of a nerd — I love languages,” she said.

Inspired to attend law school

With the nonprofit, she did a lot of translation work for Tibetan refugees seeking asylum, green cards or citizenship in the United States. And that gave her a fresh perspective and newfound appreciation of her own freedoms.

“Working with these lamas who come from a completely different world, and seeing how much they appreciate the U.S. Constitution and what it stands for, how they revere the freedoms we take for granted, it’s like you start looking at it again with fresh, unjaded eyes,” she said. “They want to come to America because they know it represents freedom of religion and freedom of speech, and seeing the joy and gratefulness they have for the fundamental principles underlying our Constitution — it really brought me back to the Declaration of Independence and what our country really stands for.”

In fact, it served as motivation to do more.

“I specifically remember translating for a Tibetan man in court one time, and I felt like the whole case was based on a cultural misunderstanding, but he was pro se and didn’t know that he could articulate this. And I thought, if only I wasn't just his translator — if only I could actually speak on his behalf and offer another perspective to the court. And that was kind of a turning point where I realized the limitations of just being a translator. That’s when I knew I wanted to be more of an advocate than just a translator.”

But that was not the only reason she came to law school.

“I came to the study of law because the law saved my life.”

While working as a translator for the nonprofit, she got married and had two daughters. It was what followed that really awakened in her a deep appreciation for the law.

“Without going into detail, basically, I found myself the victim of domestic violence,” she said. “I tried to save the marriage, but it got to a point where I knew I had to protect my daughters and myself, so I literally fled with one suitcase and my two girls, and we had to start over from scratch. It was a terrifying and sobering time.”  

"I remember how scary it was to be at the mercy of the legal system and not know how to present my case in the language of the law, and it really is like learning another language,” she said. “And I remember how grateful I was when this woman, this attorney, took me under her wing and helped me obtain a restraining order. I was granted sole and full custody of my girls. And I feel like the law saved our lives. And every day I sit in class and I feel so grateful to be here. I feel like the law is continuing to save my life, because it has given my life meaning. And my girls are safe now, and happy. They are proud to see their mom in law school. I hope it teaches them that a woman can do anything, that she’s not weak, that she can stand up for her children and do what is right.”

Finding a home at ASU Law

“When I visited ASU, the first thing I noticed was how kind everyone seemed and how warm and humble and just, I don't know, there was a presence at ASU that you don't feel in other university settings,” she said. “It feels like you are among true scholars. There's no pretentiousness. There are all these brilliant people and they're really just there because they share this love of the law and of jurisprudence. And they are kind to one another. And I was really touched by how welcomed I felt.”

Having been introduced to mediation through Tibetan monks, she approached Professor Art Hinshaw, founding director of ASU Law’s Lodestar Dispute Resolution Center. The monks had conducted human issues mediation — for people seeking help with divorces, marital issues, business deals and the like — as opposed to legal mediation, but she thought they had valuable advice they could share with the law school’s ADR community.

photo of mediation clinic

Vanessa Kubota (at right) speaks at the Mediation Clinic's Justice Court with Art Hinshaw (at left), professor and founding director of ASU Law’s Lodestar Dispute Resolution Center.

“She had the relationships and she came to me, asking if we could bring the lamas to the law school,” Hinshaw said. “And I thought, ‘When is something like this going to present itself again? Let’s do it!’ So we made it happen in about six weeks, and it was pretty hectic with all the planning, but it was totally worth it.”

The monks came for a series of events, speaking to Hinshaw’s mediation clinic, at a faculty event, a student event and even for a guided meditation. And Kubota served as the interpreter.

“It was amazing,” Hinshaw said. “To see Tibetan monks and their traditional clothing walking around a law school. It was definitely one of the highlights of my career. The juxtaposition of spirituality and the importance of individuals working together with the stereotypes of the legal world, where only the law counts and human issues don’t matter struck me as the quintessential learning moment.”

In just a little over a year, Kubota has left an indelible mark at ASU Law, founding a pair of student groups: The Dispute Resolution Student Association (co-founded with Oumou Keita and Erliana Thio), and the Zen Law Students Association (co-founded with Alexa Weber), the latter of which gathers law students and lawyers to practice mindfulness together. It’s not your everyday law school group. In fact, it sounds like something out of Sidd Finch lore. But sometimes there is real magic in the world. Just ask Kubota.

“ASU Law is just … it's a special place,” she said. “It's a magical place.”