Last Thursday we welcomed S Chelvan, law alumnus and globally recognised barrister to kick off our Social Impact Leaders Speakers Series. Chelvan specialises in representing LGBTI+ asylum seekers and refugees, and his work, including the DSSH model, has become a tool recognised by the UNHCR and used by governments around the world, including the Home Office. He was named as Legal Aid Barrister of the Year in 2014.
Chelvan was brilliant, searing, and inspirational – with one of the most infectious laugh we’ve ever heard. His talk was one of the most personal and touching in our series to date, and we strongly recommend you watch the whole video here. Here are some of our personal highlights.
Academic, activist, advocate
Southampton’s role in Chelvan’s life was transformational in molding his personal and professional self. In particular, he highlighted three interwoven dimensions which flourished during his time here: the academic, the activist and the advocate. Through these roles, he cultivated a thirst for knowledge, a desire to not just apply the law “but to change it”, and to assiduously polish his craft. It was through his time at Southampton, and later at Harvard Law School, that he learned the values and the purpose that would animate the rest of his life.
18 bin bags and 19 cardboard boxes
One week before Chelvan’s first-year exams, and shortly after he had come out as gay to his parents, he was disowned and disinherited. He only found out through a letter from his mother’s solicitor, and all of his belongings were dumped outside his room in Montifiore Hall in bin bags and cardboard boxes. This moment of great sadness and rejection became pivotal to Chelvan’s journey, and he fondly recalled how his personal tutor, the late Caroline Thomas, refused to allow him to dwell on his personal situation “because he had so much more to give”. It was also the moment when he realised that despite the seeming loss of his biological family, he had found his “logical” family, and that they would support him for life.
“You will love, and be loved”
Our final question to Chelvan was “if you could give your 20-year-old self advice, what would it be?” In response, he touched on the vulnerability we all feel in early adulthood – the fear of being alone and unworthy of affection. From someone who, even at that age, was clearly destined for great achievement, it was surprising to hear that the fears that gnaw away at most of us, gnawed away at him too. He reassured us that, no matter how much of an outsider we might feel, we will eventually find our partners, tribes, and families. The comfort of finding our place can help us express our talent and fulfill our potential – just as Chelvan has done.