Jackie Aranda ’15, Eric Stern, Samantha Reed ’15, Professor Bertrall Ross, Tim Shadix ’16, Gilbert Rivera ’16, Lora Krsulich ’16, Setareh Homayoni ’16
By Andrew Cohen
Among the myriad student organizations he encountered at Berkeley Law, Antonio Herrera ’12 noticed a missing slice in the diversity pie. “There were so many ethnic- and racial-identified groups, but no socioeconomic-identified groups,” he recalled. “It seemed like a glaring void.”
Eager to fill it, Herrera and classmate Rory McHale formed First Generation Professionals (FGP) in 2011 for students who were the first in their families to attend graduate school. The more they learned—empirically and anecdotally—the more need they saw for such a group.
“At the top 10 law schools, only 3 percent of the cumulative student body comes from the bottom economic quartile and only 10 percent comes from the bottom half,” Herrera said. “That creates an initial disconnect for people from our backgrounds. I remember talking with classmates and thinking, ‘How come no one else knows what government cheese is?’”
The only group of its kind among major U.S. law schools, FGP started small—with seven students attending the first meeting. Three years later, its welcome session drew more than 40 students.
“We focus on making law school feel like a comfortable space for these students and build programming to help them navigate this new terrain,” Ross said. “They have the smarts. They just don’t always have exposure to professional etiquette, law firm culture, networking skills, things like that. Many other students already have ladders to success in place with family connections or parents who are lawyers. First-generation students don’t have those ladders.”
Determined to help change that, Eric Stern—director of operations for Berkeley Law’s Career Development Office (CDO)—established a thriving mentorship program that matches first-generation students with first-generation lawyers.
FGP mentors discuss varied topics with their mentees, including whether to participate in the school’s on-campus interviewing programs, course selection, and interview tips. They tackle everything from how to balance students’ commitment to social justice with financial considerations, what ‘business casual’ means, and whether it’s okay to order a drink at a work happy hour—and if so what it should be.
“If law firm associates are talking to FGP students during their summer associate program about golf or sailing, something they tell us they have little exposure to, how do you find ways to connect and build professional relationships when you feel like you have nothing to add to that conversation?” Stern said. “Our upperclassmen, as well as our mentors, do a great job explaining to our first-year students how to navigate all of these situations.”
The mentoring program now boasts nearly 40 alumni members, some of whom have hosted FGP events at their law firms. The CDO also sponsors first generation-tailored programs on best practices for resume writing, job interviews, networking, and financial aid management.
Acquiring cultural capital
Ross sees students facing the same challenges he encountered coming into law school. “During my orientation at Yale, the student tour leader talked about getting a district court clerkship,” Ross said. “I didn’t know what a district court clerkship was. It felt like I had a lack of cultural capital, and that insecurity can lead to a fear of speaking in class, engaging classmates, and getting to know professors. I could have really benefited from a group like this.”
Equal Justice Works Fellow Jesus Mosqueda ’14, whose parents never finished grade school, led FGP last year along with Amanda Rogers ’14. While Rogers’ parents went to college, they had five children and needed her to help to run the family restaurant and raise her siblings.
“The great thing about FGP is that it creates a kinship that crosses race, geography, and age,” said Rogers, now a Prettyman Fellow at Georgetown Law Center in Washington, D.C. “We all had something in common as the first members of our families to go to grad school, let alone a school like UC Berkeley. Professor Ross and Professor Urban were so open about their own experiences, which made them and all faculty members seem more accessible.”
In addition to the alumni mentoring program, current group leaders Samantha Reed ’15 and Jackie Aranda ’15 have implemented a student mentoring initiative, as well as more social and networking activities. The daughter of a single parent with mental health limitations, Reed believes graduate schools need to realize that ability alone does not ensure success.
“If you come from a poor background, it’s easy to feel like you don’t belong and to be a bit mistrustful of people,” Reed said. “Research has shown that just talking about socioeconomic issues makes it easier for FGPs to feel comfortable in higher education, and it’s gratifying to provide help with on-campus interviewing, networking tactics, and even dressing for an interview.”
Now a corporate attorney at Shearman & Sterling in San Francisco, Herrera is pleased to see the group he launched grow deeper roots.
“I grew up in a family of five living on $25,000 to $35,000 a year, and I wasn’t sure if that kind of background meshed with anyone at law school,” he said. “To have a place where people can talk openly and take on these new challenges together—that’s important for the school and its first generation students.”