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.
Being the smart one made me live up to the expectation that I needed to know everything—not only to make my family proud, but also to prove to society that this Latina was just as smart as the next kid. If I didn’t know something, I was determined to figure it out on my own.
Many times, I didn’t do that, and asking for help made me feel like a failure. So I avoided it. Therefore, as “smart” as I was, the burden of having to know it all, accompanied with the feeling of being a failure, often landed me in hot water throughout my life as a first-generation student.
Stubborn little first-gen
In 4th grade, a class activity required us to write anonymous “compliments” to one another. Having just come from an underfunded school located in a Latinx-dominant neighborhood, where words like “compliment” weren’t used in the classroom, I struggled with the assignment. I’d never heard the word “compliment” before.
Already sticking out like a sore thumb with my Chicana dialect, I avoided asking for clarification and quickly made my own assumption of its definition. Compliment, comment.
Same thing, right? I wrote “you’re a brat” to my bully. Needless to say, I paid a price for it—a price that forced me to face my fear of not knowing everything.
Finding survival tools
Fast forward 18 years, and now here I am, a first-year law student continuously surrounded by words I’ve never heard before—and I’m not talking about legalese. I’m talking about when the professor questions a student about the “red herrings” of a case and then asks the student to “distinguish” the case.
What makes me feel significantly small about this is that the student being questioned often understands the terminology used. Meanwhile, I’m sitting in my seat quickly doing an internet search to find out what the heck a “red herring” is or what the professor means by “distinguish.”
Most of my anxieties as a first-gen law student stem from my Mexican- American background. My parents are Mexican immigrants with high school-level education. My household communicated in Spanglish, not in such terminology as “red herrings.”
Therefore, being cold called isn’t what scares me about law school. It’s the seemingly common phrases of the English language a professor may use but that I may not understand. It’s one thing to have the wrong answer but another thing to have the right answer and not realize you’re being asked for it. So Google has become one of my survival tools to get me through law school. I’m constantly defining terms as I hear them in class or read them in cases.
However, that’s not a permanent solution since I can’t use Google in the middle of a cold call, exam, or networking event. That’s discouraging because I often hear other students speaking so eloquently and intellectually only to find out one or both of their parents are lawyers.
But I’ve found that it’s important to keep in perspective that many traditional law students are born into generations of lawyers. So they come equipped with the knowledge, resources, and connections they need to succeed. We first-gen students don’t have that. We have our survival tools. But we also need to know how to survive without them.
Beyond your workarounds
Surviving law school goes beyond your tools. It means asking for help. When I don’t understand what a professor is asking, I ask the professor to rephrase the question. When I needed advice regarding the field of law I’m interested in, I made an appointment with a career counselor. When I needed a mentor, I emailed a professor who’d made me feel comfortable.
I’ve also joined student organizations that are meaningful to me and have managed to find a supportive group of first-gen students. We understand each other because we know what it’s like to be underdogs. We help one another by venting, swapping outlines, or sharing network connections.
Finding solidarity within this group has replaced the feelings of isolation and failure.
We may struggle more as first-gen law students, but we’re resilient, and we’re doing important work. We’re paving a path and passing down our lessons to those like us, which makes being a first-gen law student special.
So when you feel defeated or unqualified, I leave you with the wise words of my mentor: You’re chosen. You’re powerful. You belong.