Do you remember when Elle Woods walked into that non-costume party? Being a first-generation college student feels a lot like that—except our costume is internal.
First, what’s a first-gen student? The definitions vary. But ultimately, a consensus centers on the question: Did you grow up in a household where either of your parents had a bachelor’s degree?
There’s also a first-gen law student experience. It appears to be underresearched, but some trends are clear.
First-gen law students come into schools lacking networks, financial support, and often family support. As a group, we come from diverse and multicultural backgrounds but also take out more loans and are usually older than our peers.
Law schools across the country are increasingly recognizing the unique challenges first-gen students face, and many students and faculty are taking proactive measures to make sure we first-gen students feel welcome. Law students, alumni, and professors (usually first-gen students themselves) are working to fill the gaps.
Two Duquesne University School of Law professors organized a luncheon for first-gen law students in September. Together, students and professors read a piece from the Above the Law blog, “Welcome to Law School, First-Generation Students.” Then they talked openly about their experiences. individual professors at other schools have emailed to their students articles on the topic and invited students to talk one on one.
Some schools offer scholarship opportunities designed to ease the financial burden on first-gen students. New York University School of Law offers the AnBryce Scholarship, which offers full tuition for first-gen students. The University of Georgia School of Law has a First-Generation Student Association. It’s funded by a $3 million donation that will also fund fellowships and scholarships.
The University of California, Berkeley School of Law has an Opportunity Scholarship that gives a first-gen college student $150,000 in funding.
Other law schools offer student mentoring, career advice, and social-support groups. We first-gen students usually come from communities in which lawyers and other professionals aren’t easily accessible for mentoring. These groups help fill that “network gap” that accompanies most first-gen students into law school. The University of Southern California, Gould School of Law offers a First Generation Professionals group, run by students, that provides career advice and mentoring, in addition to the usual community support role that student groups play. Multiple schools—Yale Law School, for example—have a first-gen professionals group.
Personally, I believe that first-gen law students like me are the lucky ones. We know better than most the power of the law and how fortunate we are to be in law school. Still, we travel different paths than most of our peers. Here, three other first-gen law students share how they have navigated, or are navigating, the less-traveled and trailblazing path.
What it means to thrive as a first-generation law student
Like many other law students, I’ve been called smart my entire life. But being called smart rings differently as a first-generation Latina law student.
The first-generation law student job search: Different and difficult
Being the only law student ever in my family definitely meant a disadvantage when it came to the job hunt. For many of my classmates, joining the family business was a given. Or they seamlessly returned to their hometowns and entered the legal community there.
Be ready to build your own network, first-gen law students
Many students enter their first year having been groomed to go to law school by one or more family members in the legal industry. Their path may have been set out long before they were born. The potential paths of many other students aren’t so clear. Still others enter law school having taken a 180-degree turn from the path on which they appeared to be set.