UH law student Katherine Vessels chosen 1 of 25 national Students of the Year

University of Hawaiʻi
Beverly A. Creamer, (808) 389-5736
Media Consultant, William S. Richardson School of Law
Posted: Mar 8, 2016

Katherine Vessels (middle) with mother and brother
Katherine Vessels (middle) with mother and brother
Vessels at the Temple of Ta Prohm in Angkor, Cambodia
Vessels at the Temple of Ta Prohm in Angkor, Cambodia
Vessels in Afghanistan
Vessels in Afghanistan

LINK TO VIDEO AND INTERVIEW: http://bit.ly/1nsqhq8

Outstanding University of Hawai‘i law student Katherine "Kaki" Vessels ‘16 has been chosen as one of 25 Students of the Year picked from more than 200 ABA-accredited law schools across the nation. The Student of the Year honor is a new feature in the spring issue of The National Jurist magazine that highlights exceptionally talented, dedicated and community-minded law students.

A third-year law student at the William S. Richardson School of Law, Vessels has been involved in a remarkable range of public service and educational activities, from assisting at war crimes tribunals in Asia and Africa, to preparing patent applications for recent law graduates, to helping to develop security improvements for port operations in the Philippines.

School of Law Dean Avi Soifer said, “The list of all that Kaki has done seems incredible but that is only until you meet her. Kaki seems to be an irresistible force, and she does all this and more without ever losing her humanity and her commitment to doing everything well.”

Vessels credits many of her accomplishments to the array of opportunities offered by UH law school and the vast amount of support from faculty and staff.

“I’ve had an amazing number of practical experiences that not a lot of other law schools even offer,” said Vessels. “Getting to travel to these other countries you learn about law in other cultures, but also how to interact with lawyers from other cultures, and how to do research in other countries. And you learn so much about how you deal with stressful events, and who you are as a person and a lawyer.”

A veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Vessels will complete her law studies at UH in May and hopes to take a masters in law degree at Ateneo Law School in the Philippines next year. While there she will be directly involved in continuing work on security measures for the maritime operations throughout the Philippines, work she began with UH Law Professor Diane Desierto.

“I’m all for students getting out there and getting their hands dirty,” says Vessels. “That was a huge part for me. For instance, reading about the Nuremberg trials is very different from seeing Hissene Habre dragged out of a courtroom in Senegal because he refuses to recognize what he has done to his people. You don’t get that from a book.”

As an extraordinary student leader, Vessels has a long list of credits that include: joining the research team of Professors David Cohen and Desierto and monitoring war crimes tribunals in Cambodia and Senegal; developing legal protections for victims of human trafficking in Southeast Asia; assisting in the assessment of the law school’s strategic plan as part of its reaccreditation process and working with Professor Eric Yamamoto in building the framework for reparations claims for victims of a 1948 massacre of South Korean citizens.

In the past year alone she spent the summer as a war crimes trial observer and recorder both in Cambodia and Senegal – the first as a participant in the trials of Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge regime leaders and the second for the trial of the former president of Chad. In Senegal, Vessels worked with Human Rights Watch to establish a trial monitoring program for the new tribunal.

“In Cambodia we would go to court every morning, to this building built specifically for the tribunal, through the metal detectors and x-ray machines, and we would watch with simultaneous translation from the other side of bulletproof glass. In Senegal, the trial took place at the local courthouse, without translators, and with portable metal detectors and x-ray machines brought in from the airport the day after the tribunal officially began. My job at both was to keep a good record of what happened each day, but the circumstances for doing that were completely different.

“What was so shocking to me was that neither the members of the Khmer Rouge nor Mr. Habre had come to terms with what they had done. In Cambodia, a woman who had been in charge of the women workers at some of the camps testified that she had treated the women well and that the women had chosen to be at the work camps. Mr. Habre still has enough supporters that they were able to create a disruption on the first day and delay the trial by 45 days.”

Vessels is a graduate with a bachelors degree in chemistry from Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. She first came to Hawai‘i in 2008 when she was stationed at Schofield Barracks in the U.S. Army and her husband Brad was stationed at Ft. Shafter with the 94th Air and Missile Defense Command.

In 2010 she served in Afghanistan for a year where she was a movement control team leader responsible for overseeing all the trucks, planes, and helicopters bringing supplies to her base. Sometimes her job entailed dealing with hundreds of trucks and drivers from an array of nations and determining daily if any posed a danger.

She returned to Hawai‘i in 2011, and entered the Richardson law school in 2013, a year after leaving the Army in 2012. She and her husband also run a yacht brokerage business and live on a 58-foot trawler in Ko‘Olina.

Vessels’ photo and law school affiliation will be included in the magazine story, and her biography will be on the magazine’s website and posted early in March.

LINK TO VIDEO AND INTERVIEW: http://bit.ly/1nsqhq8

VIDEO B-ROLL ( 1 minute, 30 seconds )

  • Kaki MS in class
  • Kaki CU in class
  • Kaki still photo with UH law students
  • In Afghanistan
  • still photo caption, Brother #2
  • still photo Cambodian war criminal Nuon Chea (Brother #2)
  • still, Kaki in Cambodia court
  • still, Nuon Chea on closed-circuit TV in Cambodia court
  • 3-shot with professors    
  • over the shoulder professor
  • over the shoulder Kaki
  • 3-shot w/professors


Avi Soifer, Dean of William S. Richardson School of Law, UH Mānoa (9 seconds)

“We’re very proud that Kaki won it but boy does she deserve it. She’s just terrific on all levels and she really represents our students very well.”

Diane Desierto, Associate Professor of Law, UH Mānoa (14 seconds)

“One of the things that most impressed me about her was not just her consummate professionalism but she has a quiet probing way of understanding how justice works in the world.”

Katherine “Kaki” Vessels, law student, UH Mānoa (11 seconds)

“Richardson is completely different from any other law school and not just because the students love going here but because there’s this great sense of community.”