When he first came to Minnesota, Mohammed Al Mulhim already had experience as a judge and a law school instructor in Saudi Arabia. But he wanted to immerse himself in Western legal traditions. So he enrolled at the University of Minnesota law school — even though he barely spoke English.
Now, he's the first person in U history to earn the highest degree in the field of law, a doctorate in juridical science, or S.J.D.
Al Mulhim, 33, who graduated Saturday, is one of a handful of international students in the new degree program — the equivalent of a Ph.D. in law — which was launched in 2015.
With his new academic credentials, he said he plans to return to Saudi Arabia and start a human rights center at King Faisal University, where he teaches law.
"It's a sensitive job," he said of his ambitions. But he hopes to use his knowledge of both Islamic and Western law to "start conversations," he said, about ways to modernize legal education in his conservative, tradition-bound nation.
"I think he could have a great influence," said Prof. Robert Stein, former dean of the law school, who has been his adviser. "He's a very talented young man."
In some ways, Al Mulhim already has had an influence — on the U law school. It's partly because of him, said Stein, that the school launched its new advanced degree program, which is mainly for legal scholars and people who want to teach law.
Until recently, the U law school offered only traditional law degrees and master's degrees. Al Mulhim, who earned his master's at the U in 2014, wanted more.
"He was very interested in getting a doctorate," said Stein, "which we had never offered here, although we were considering it."
When the program opened, Al Mulhim was among the first to apply.
His Minnesota odyssey began when he found himself in the wrong job after graduating from law school in Saudi Arabia. He was tapped to be a judge in an administrative court, he said, but felt ill-suited to be mediating disputes. So he quit after a year, much to the dismay of his family.
"They were angry," he admitted, "because a judge is a huge thing."
He started teaching law instead, and within months, his university offered to send him to a "world class" law school for advanced training, he said. He picked the University of Minnesota after a cousin, who had once attended the U, told him: "Yes, it has a very rough winter, but you'll like it there."
Seven winters later, Al Mulhim, who is married and has two children, said: "I love it here."
After a year polishing his English, he dove into his law school studies at the U. He was particularly impressed with the practical side of the legal training, which he found lacking in back home. "They teach you here how to analyze cases, how to think as a lawyer, as a judge," he said.
In the meantime, his wife, Dalal, earned a degree at St. Catherine University.
At the U, Al Mulhim honed a special interest in international human rights law, which he hopes to build on when he returns to teaching.
It won't work, he acknowledges, to simply "copy and paste" western ideas on Saudi culture. But he believes his country is open to change, and that he can help pave the way by starting a center for human rights. "What I [want] to do is raise awareness," he said.
But he has no plans, he added, to become a judge again.
"No, no, no, no," Al Mulhim said. "Teaching. This is my goal."