By Leslie A. Gordon
Five first-year Berkeley Law students are among the select 22 awarded a 2013 Diversity Scholarship by the California Bar Foundation. It’s the only California scholarship program that provides funding to incoming law students from communities historically underrepresented in the state’s legal profession. Each winning student receives $7,500 to help cover law school expenses.
“The goal is to find students with a compelling personal story who are going to be a benefit to the state bar. We look at the whole picture,” said Joe Swimmer, the California Bar Foundation’s development director.
Specifically, in its commitment to fostering an inclusive bar, the foundation awards scholarships to students who have not only demonstrated exceptional academic performance, but also those who have overcome significant obstacles on the path to law school. More than $4 million in scholarships have been awarded to California law students by the foundation; this year, 140 applications were received.
“We want our membership to look more like the businesses and individuals we serve,” said Robert Infelise, managing partner at Cox, Castle & Nicholson and a foundation board member who also lectures at Berkeley Law. “These students have overcome unbelievable adversity. Many are refugees and many have tales of growing up in profound poverty. Yet they’ve managed to overcome challenges, get to law school and are heading toward the legal profession.”
One Berkeley Law winner, Guadalupe Aguirre ’16, grew up in a low-income neighborhood of Long Beach, CA where “violence and poverty were part of the fabric of the community,” she said. When she was seven, her brother was killed by gang violence. Despite that tragedy, her parents, who never went to high school, continued to give back to the community.
After her brother’s death, Aguirre’s mother went on to volunteer as a chaplain in the Los Angeles County jail, serving prisoners like the ones who killed her son. Although her parents provided emotional support, Aguirre never had anything given to her, which made her resourceful, she said.
“Being involved in the community has been my passion ever since I was young. It was instilled in me at an early age. As a result, my trajectory has been different from so many people in my neighborhood.” Before law school, Aguirre worked with undocumented victims of crime, what she calls a “particularly vulnerable population.”
Receiving the California Bar Foundation scholarship means Aguirre won’t have to make “financially incentivized choices,” she said. But more importantly, having the support of her sponsor firm has impacted her in ways she didn’t expect. “The mentorship, the belief in me, the willingness to give, it boosts my confidence,” Aguirre said.
For Sharmalee Brooks-Gordon ’16, who plans to do international human rights work after graduation, winning the scholarship provided her “the opportunity to network with likeminded peers and also attorneys who have experienced my current first-year struggles,” she said.
“This network is so important to me, as I am the first person in my family to move out to the West Coast; all of my friends and family are in my hometown of Brooklyn. The scholarship has given me a sense of security and belonging. It has shown me that the leap of faith I took moving out here is not only worth it but very sacred,” Gordon said.
According to the foundation’s Swimmer, the students embody Berkeley Law’s commitment to public interest. “The five winning students very well represent that trait and the law school can hold them up as a great example,” he said. “They are amazing people who will serve the profession and may really change the world.”
Other scholarship winners include Cindy Dinh ’16, who is working toward a joint degree in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. After graduation, Dinh plans to focus on improving healthcare delivery for populations with limited English proficiency. Christina Fletes ’16, also a concurrent degree student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, plans to work on behalf of California’s Latino community and low-wage workforce.
Evelyn Rangel-Medina ’16 has set her sights on becoming a public interest lawyer serving immigrant communities. The foundation cites her remarkable journey as a young undocumented immigrant who was raised in abject poverty in a single-parent household. Overcoming many obstacles, she earned a college scholarship and graduated magna cum laude.