Becoming a Lawyer: Personal Statements from BU Law Students
Students share how influences like the Peace Corps, a child trafficking documentary, and 30 foster siblings inspired them to become lawyers. Scroll down for full student listing.
Hometown: Normal, Illinois
Undergraduate Institution: University of Chicago
"I saw many children who had suffered abuse, who had been neglected, or who were physically or mentally ill. It was their lawyer who seemed to hold the key to their fate, who argued for them to return to their worried families or who kept them out of dangerous homes."
Growing up in Normal, IL was, for me, anything but normal. Throughout my life I have had over thirty brothers and sisters. My mother worked for the Department of Children and Family Services and was a frequent foster parent, although I was her only biological child. She taught me to consider each foster child as a sibling, and it seemed as though every day there were new children at our house; a new brother or sister for me to play with. The shortest stayed for one night, the longest stayed for fifteen years. I had sisters who had children of their own, and I had brothers who had been born with heroin addiction or autism. But I also had sisters who taught me about boys, who did my hair in the morning; and brothers that I would carry on my back and tickle until they cried with laughter. As the only child who didn't rotate in and out of our home, I developed very strong ideas about family. Sometimes it is best to separate family, but that doesn't mean that they won't ever be reunited. I still see some of my sisters who have moved out, and talk to some of my brothers every day.
My mother had a close network of friends who were also foster mothers. They came to support us when we legally adopted my three younger brothers, and I would often tag along to their adoption and custody hearing as well. It was at these hearings that I began to nurture a deep respect for the lawyers assigned to their cases. I saw many children who had suffered abuse, who had been neglected, or who were physically or mentally ill. It was their lawyer who seemed to hold the key to their fate, who argued for them to return to their worried families or who kept them out of dangerous homes.
Not every foster child gets to return to their parents, and some parents should not have their children returned. But every child deserved someone to advocate what is best for them, and I want to be that person, not just for foster children but for any child who has been hurt. Families are versatile, but children are fragile. They can't speak for themselves and they often don't know what they want.
Throughout my undergraduate career I have been able to pursue all of my interests, from anthropology to political science, to discover what I want to spend my life pursuing. The only thing that has been persistent over the years is my desire to work with children. I worked as a Teaching Assistant in the Chicago Public School system, and I volunteered to teach dance classes at the neighborhood community center in Hyde Park. I even started a student club that knits hats for newborns at the area hospital. But my mind kept going back to those lawyers who had decided the futures of my siblings. For many children, those men and women are the most important people in their lives. As daunting as that sounds, I know I would be perfect for it. I have the analytical skills to succeed at Boston University and would love to be a part of such a diverse community. I have carefully honed my research practices and writing style throughout my college years. I am outgoing, well spoken, calm under pressure, and persistent in being just and pursuing what is right. Most importantly, I take a personal interest in each child I work with, and I am undeniably passionate about children's rights. While the technical skills are of invaluable importance, it is the passion that I believe makes a great family lawyer stand out.
Hometown: Fairfax, Virginia
Undergraduate Institution: University of Virginia
"As an honors undergraduate, my probation work inspired my psychology thesis. I studied legal theory and emotion, and later conducted research on how emotion affects cognition within the courtroom."
It was by honest mistake that I became an Intern Probation Officer last year, but it was serendipity in disguise. The internship agency mislabeled the organization description. Much to my surprise, on the day of my arrival, my supervisor Carol asked me, "You do know that this is not lawyers' work, right?" My bewildered silence sufficed as an appropriate response. Yet, I was not dismissed.
They threw me in the fire right away. Carol believed the quickest way to learn was by practice and my availability coincided with an awaiting task. "I want you to write a social history," she said. "It's a weird case. He's a sex offender." Social history? Sex offender? Though I believe law was a medium for rehabilitation, this first case felt beyond the scope of my intentions. I scheduled my first interview and sat in a sterile room face to face with a sex offender. The lump in my throat dissolved at approximately the sixth question, around the same time as the goosebumps, when I realized there was more to this story than a single crime. Why are we so reluctant to acknowledge that criminals are humans, as well?
My completed social history was greeted with a flood of red ink. "This isn't English class," Carol told me. "This is legal writing. Take yourself, your flowery writing, and your opinions out of it." She explained that for anything I wrote, I had to be ready to explain it objectively to the judge. "And if you can't, well then, maybe you'll be the one going to jail instead." As I hadn't yet latched onto her sense of humor, I was terrified. But the intimidation served me well. When your writing has the power to change the course of someone's life, it merits precision and clarity.
We went to court. I stood with wobbly knees in front of the Judge and answered several "yes" or "no" questions. The defendant walked out of the courtroom and returned to his familiar life. This experience did not equal the glorified (naïve) version in my imagination, fueled by years of television. The defendant did not make a life-altering decision to change his path and become a local hero. Rather, I learned to celebrate little victories: a part-time job, a high school diploma, a family's completion of counseling services. A sex offender became a contributing member of the community.
I came to love the work, not because it was glamorous, but because it was real. The juveniles I worked with were real people with futures on the fence. Their emotions were raw, and I learned to be professional while reporting each heart-wrenching story. I interviewed illegitimate children, abusive parents, apathetic social workers and even a tearful 15-year-old mother-to-be serving time. My task was not to sympathize, but rather to gather facts. I was an employee of the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court; my research and my writing would shape a decision and prescription of consequences to best serve the needs of the offender and the community.
Yet, as I struggled to dampen my own emotions to do my job, and as I observed the emotional inappropriateness that characterized my caseload, I became fascinated with the interaction between law and emotion. Humans automatically experience emotion, which sometimes drives socially undesirable actions. Legal procedures are designed to encourage lawyers, judges, and juries to deal with such action in a consistent and reasoned way. But ultimately it is neither possible nor desirable to excise emotion from the law. Justice William J. Brennan publicly criticized "formal reason severed from the insights of passion." We are human, after all.
As an honors undergraduate, my probation work inspired my psychology thesis. I studied legal theory and emotion, and later conducted research on how emotion affects cognition within the courtroom. I found that the emotional reaction of jurors may alter what they remember from testimony and hence what is accessible to inform their judgment. At the extreme, emotion may manipulate a verdict. Sleepless nights of research earned high distinction at graduation. Yet, the greater honor was that my serendipitous mistake immersed me in the juvenile justice system and educated me far more than I had anticipated.
My probation work was an introduction to the vast field of law. The greatest insight was that outside of the University bubble of safe academics, there resided a community where I could invest what I had learned. My honors thesis was a preview of the research I will pursue. The greater the amount of learning, the greater the investment I can make in the community. Boston University will certainly challenge and nurture my academic pursuit, and I would like to invest in the immediate community of Boston, Massachusetts. I am confident that my psychology research background, knowledge of languages, and experience in the juvenile justice system are well-suited for the Boston University School of Law.
Hometown: Stone Mountain, Georgia
Undergraduate Institution: New York University
"I envision a future where I pursue both law and journalism; I will be a formidable advocate when able to wield these two complementary skill sets. Everyone deserves a fair chance: a legal education will give me the tools to help others find justice."
I am not used to feeling powerless, but I was definitely powerless in Ghana.
I was there to film a documentary about child trafficking in the fishing industry. For weeks, I looked through the viewfinder of my camera at children who had been treated as chattel their entire lives.
What was it like to be one of these trafficked children? I wondered how claustrophobic it would feel to have no way to change your circumstances, or, perhaps worse, to be unable to imagine that a different, better life existed, even if it was not attainable.
In the course of reporting, I interviewed adults who had been trafficked as children. They spoke of watching helplessly as their friends became caught in fishing nets and drowned. I did not witness a child drown while filming my project, but I did see children slipping under as the mighty weight of their circumstances washed over them. There was nothing I could do. This both angered and saddened me.
Child trafficking is illegal in Ghana, but the country does little to enforce the law. Ghana cannot afford to fund investigations and has no money to house rescued children. But money is not the only obstacle to enforcement: evidence is difficult to come by; prosecuting and then punishing thousands of impoverished offenders is impractical; family members are often involved in the crime; and Ghanaian leaders worry that publicizing the problem by investigating it will tarnish the country's image.
This complicated and nuanced story is a journalist's dream. I left Ghana with my tapes filled end to end, but the memories of those helpless children followed me home. Knowledge of their bondage suffocated me. I cut the documentary, showed it in several film festivals, and sold it. But as far as I can tell, the film has had no noticeable impact on child trafficking in Ghana. The problem is still widespread.
Every day, as a journalist, I come across people who lack the power to shape their own destinies. Sometimes they are citizens given the runaround by government bureaucracy. Sometimes they are gay couples maligned by religious or social institutions. Sometimes they are children trampled by the foster care system or neglected by their schools. As a volunteer at a nearby Family Court, I have seen victims of domestic violence struggling to use a complicated legal system to protect themselves. I have seen fathers and mothers trying to protect their children from abusive stepparents.
Each time I encounter a person or group of people like this, I've been tempted to jump over the line that separates journalist and subject. I want to advocate on their behalf. Storytelling often catalyzes change, but active duty in the trenches of a struggle is more significant. I have long wanted weapons beyond my camera and my pen to advocate for justice.
Last May, I left my job as a television reporter and once again went to Africa—this time, to Nakuru, Kenya. I volunteered at an elementary school there called Mountain Park Academy. I was also planning to put together a story about Kenyan public education.
In theory, public education is free in Kenya. In reality, the incidental costs of sending a child to school, like supplies and uniforms, are prohibitively expensive for many families. Mountain Park Academy tries to circumvent this by lobbying for sponsors to absorb those costs.
These children depend upon the altruism of strangers a world away for their education. I was outraged that the Kenyan government did not do more to ensure that these children had an education. I could put together a story about it, but what good would it do? These children would still teeter on the edge, barely able to afford a midday meal, not to mention a notebook and a pencil. That familiar feeling of powerlessness again overwhelmed me. I realized that journalism was not sufficient to satisfy the need I have to work for justice. I decided then to go to law school.
I do not want to abandon journalism—far from it. I envision a future where I pursue both law and journalism; I will be a formidable advocate when able to wield these two complementary skill sets. Everyone deserves a fair chance: a legal education will give me the tools to help others find justice.
I'm going back to Kenya in January to volunteer at Mountain Park Academy. I hope that when I return in March, I'll be accepted into your incoming law class.
Hometown: Davenport, Iowa
Undergraduate Institution: University of Iowa
"Although my two-year experience as a Peace Corps volunteer has not laid out a road map of all cultures, their needs and their problems, it has afforded me the occasion for remarkable personal growth. I had been granted the opportunity to live in a place in which the problems faced on a day-to-day basis differ greatly from those faced by many Americans; but yet, the problems faced on a larger, national level may not actually be so dissimilar or removed."
Having been raised in a family that places a heavy emphasis on civic service, my decision to join the Peace Corps was an easy one. Having lived and worked overseas many times before in my life, I entered my service with little apprehension. However, my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Republic of Armenia has been unequivocally different from any previous foreign work experience; it has been my first venture into a world that has not been dominated by Western influence. If there is one thing that I have learned thus far, it is that even though a great push for global interconnectivity has been made since the dissolution of the Cold War, a vast distance still separates many of the governments, international organizations, and worldwide businesses on the global stage.
As a volunteer, I have been able to see first hand the level of disconnect in international relations as I take an active role in a cultural exchange that fosters a greater understanding between two cultures. The Republic of Armenia is in its seventeenth year of independence after seventy years under Soviet rule. The country is struggling to reclaim its identity as an ancient culture rich in tradition, while at the same time coming to terms with itself in a new world that operates in a fundamentally different political climate. Plagued with problems of deep-seated political corruption and crippling oligarchic financial structures, the Republic of Armenia is a nation in which a young government exists at a great distance from the people it is designed to represent.
In a conversation I had with the United States' Charge d'Affaires to the Republic of Armenia about the current legal troubles facing the growing nation, he assessed that the rule of law has not yet arrived, and that the instruments of the state are still used as weapons against personal and political opponents, both domestic and foreign. I left this conversation with the power of his statements resonating in my mind, feeling that their truth pertains not just to the Republic of Armenia, but also to many governments, organizations, and businesses throughout the world.
Whether a powerful nation is an international organization or a politically and economically isolated country mired in frozen conflicts, the key to establishing and maintaining a successful and harmonious existence in an international arena stems from communication based on a fundamental understanding of national and organizational structure and order. This understanding is built upon the study and fluency in the defining legal structures and policies of the governments or organizations with which I have a desire to work as a lawyer. However, and more importantly, this understanding requires the ability to see beyond the limitations of paperbound constitutions, contracts, and agreements. It requires the ability to recognize the needs and nuances of a given culture that might not be apparent on the surface, and then to consider the possible repercussions of any amendment to the existing state of affairs.
Although my two-year experience as a Peace Corps volunteer has not laid out a road map of all cultures, their needs, and their problems, it has afforded me the occasion for remarkable personal growth. I had been granted the opportunity to live in a place in which the problems faced on a day-to-day basis differ greatly from those faced by many Americans; but yet, the problems faced on a larger, national level may not actually be so dissimilar or removed. In short, my service has been humanizing. It has allowed me to see through the limitations imposed by a political map and has inspired me to pursue a career as an empathetic and socially conscious lawyer in an international environment in order to establish more effective lines of communication and more structured rules of order within an increasingly interconnected international community.
Hometown: Moraga, California
Undergraduate Institution: University of Oregon
Graduate Institution: Harvard University
"My aim is ultimately to assist in the restructuring of education policies domestically and abroad by understanding the best practices – or better yet, the intersections of theory and practice – from around the world."
All air traffic is halted on the day of the national university entrance exam in South Korea. I learned this from a fellow passenger at the Hwarangdae subway station in Seoul, where I sat waiting for my delayed train. I didn't have to worry about the time, he told me, because nothing in the city would open until after the exam was over: "They don't want the daily commuters to get in the way of the students en route to their test sites," he said. "The numeric result of this test – this determines the rest of these students' lives."
Korea has been called the land where students, not babies, are born, and the preparation for this entrance exam begins at a very early age with intense academic training from sunrise till midnight. Nearly 600,000 students take the test, on one day and at one time, with no opportunity to re-test until the following year. My students at Konkuk University had been taught to repeat the "four in, five out" mantra daily: Four hours of sleep meant they would have enough time to study for their university entrance exam and get into a reputable college; five hours of sleep implied such laziness that they would never be academically successful. Each student receives the numeric result of the test with a list of the names of the universities that will accept him. From this list, the student knows precisely his chances of getting his dream job, a highly educated spouse, and the approval of his parents. When I lived in Seoul, a father lit himself, his wife, and his daughter on fire after hearing of his son's poor exam score.
It was in Seoul that my interest in education law and policy took root. I wanted to understand the policy behind this system and have the tools to analyze it in a meaningful way. The seed for this interest, though, came earlier: The real beginning was in a classroom in Eugene. In a course on language and culture, Professor Derry Malsch once shared with us a quotation from the German-American linguist Edward Sapir: "Human beings…are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society…The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world' is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group." I realized then that learning other languages was more than an endlessly entertaining hobby (I have endured many years of teasing for my love of grammar), but truly a necessity for serving as a global citizen. I wanted to open my mind to the undiscovered realities another language would allow me to grasp, to explore the inner workings of language, and to witness from an outsider's perspective the effect it exercises over personal thought and action, political movements, art, law, and international relations. While what I was learning at my home university was of incalculable value, I knew I had to go abroad.
I enrolled in a program to study German at the University of Tübingen with a grant awarded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Shortly after I returned, I utilized my linguistics training along with my own language-learning experiences in German, Spanish, Portuguese, and Hindi to prepare myself to teach languages, and I secured a summer internship in Mexico, teaching English at a chemical plant (wearing goggles and steel-toed boots, as was required) to company managers and researchers whose supervisors worked at the US branch office.
In 2004, after completing my undergraduate thesis, I left Oregon for Seoul with one large suitcase of my belongings and an even larger set of expectations that the institution where I would teach, Konkuk University, would function in a way that was similar to what I knew. I began working as an English instructor, developing my own course materials and teaching ESL to university students at all levels from beginning through advanced. They, in return, taught me that the components and methodology of education I took for granted in the U.S. were not necessarily effective in this new context, and that I had much to learn about how things function in Korea. Between terms, I taught the Konkuk Teacher Training Program to Korean teachers, who taught me that Korean higher education policy is very clearly an outgrowth of the primary and secondary school systems and policies, and the trends I had observed at Konkuk University began to take on new meaning. In the evenings, I allowed myself to speak only Korean, with the hope that better skills in the language would yield a better understanding of my new living and working environment. My love of language brought me here, but my fascination with the differences in the education system (whether a result of linguistic construction, as Sapir might propose, or not) kept my attention rapt.
After my return to the U.S., I was offered a position as the head of the West Coast Information Center of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). In this position, I represented institutions of higher education and the research landscape in Germany, including funding and exchange opportunities – I was responsible for marketing the German higher education system, in short. Not only did this position demand that I absorb a great amount of information on the university system and the massive education reforms within Europe, but also that I develop a working knowledge of other higher education systems competing with Germany for international researchers. I managed my one-person branch office independently, and organized and led campus visits, alumni events, faculty and administrator training workshops, and information sessions for senior administrators, faculty, and students in the western United States. I was no longer a mere observer of the differences between the higher education system of my home country and another country; I became an educator and advisor about these differences.
While my work experience yielded a solid understanding of European higher education and the preparation, execution, and aftermath of its reform, it also revealed the abundance of knowledge still left to gain. Through graduate study, I hope to fill these gaps in knowledge and develop the foundation I need to contribute innovatively to both the national and international education policy debate.
My direction is clear: I wish to work in education policy leadership, using my experience to better advocate for education reform in an increasingly global environment. The masters in international education policy which I am currently pursuing at the Harvard Graduate School of Education will help me to develop the crucial skills I need in policy analysis, comparative education, reform, and development. A law degree would supplement this by providing me with an understanding of legislative and regulatory processes essential for a career as a practitioner in education policy, equipping me with the tools to progress in the field to the point where I will have the experience, authority, and credibility necessary to leverage change where it is needed. With training in both education policy and law, I will be equipped with the problem-solving strategies and techniques of both disciplines and be uniquely prepared to tackle the complex challenges of my intended career path.
Boston University School of Law is the ideal setting for my pursuit of this goal for several reasons. First, the flexible curriculum allows for the high degree of specialization necessary for a student with an interdisciplinary focus, and the focus on learning by doing will allow me to devote myself equally – through coursework, clinics, internships, and other opportunities – to research-based practice, practice-based research, and research-based policy. For a career as a practitioner in education law and policy, these components are not only beneficial but essential, and Boston University's dedication to balancing these factors ensures a set of holistically trained alumni with the unique perspective necessary for ultimate efficacy in the field. I also especially look forward to the opportunity to work with Professor Daniela Caruso, whose research on education law and on issues having to do with Europe and EU integration, specifically, echoes my own academic interests. I would also love the opportunity to be involved with the Public Interest Law Journal (PILJ) and the Education and School Law Association (ESLA), both amazing resources for integrating practical experience and scholarly discourse.
My aim is ultimately to assist in the restructuring of education policies domestically and abroad by understanding the best practices – or better yet, the intersections of theory and practice – from around the world. I want to work alongside the current and future front-runners in my field to discover and explore solutions, be they regionally grounded or global, to address problems like Korea's "four in, five out" situation. I seek the resources that will allow me to make changes that better respond to the world's educational needs. Impassioned and motivated to take this next step, I look forward to the opportunity to make a positive contribution to Boston University School of Law.