I’m a first-generation student at Lewis & Clark Law School, a volunteer, and an advocate. I’m a staff member for our criminal justice clinic and law review. I also work as a teaching fellow, a research assistant, and a law clerk.
OH, I almost forgot: I just tested positive for COVID-19.
In the town I was raised in, cherry trees and livestock far outnumbered the people. I grew up in a small, seasonal cabin that was converted to a year-round residence. My days were spent outdoors floating in the lake, exploring the forest, and running through orchards.
Although not acutely aware of it at the time, my family was living in poverty. It was not until early adolescence, my parent’s divorce, and the subsequent move to a manufactured home in an incredibly isolated part of northern Michigan, that the reality of our financial situation became apparent. I recall studying by candlelight when the power was turned off and having food shortages regularly. College attendance was not on my radar, only surviving high school was.
In addition, I had a chronic illness that often put an additional strain on our already incredibly limited financial resources. Needless to say, law school was the very last thing on my radar in every possible way.
I have a tremendous amount of privilege as a white woman and as a woman who now lives with more financial resources than I ever had growing up. Being a law student who comes from a working class family in a rural area and lives with a chronic illness has opened my eyes to the inherent barriers that exists in legal education.
After attending community college with a Pell Grant and earning a scholarship to transfer to a four-year university, I graduated with a degree in science that would allow me to become a teacher. My teacher had given me hope, and I wanted to do the same for my own students.
Each day, I entered my classroom with lessons I worked diligently to prepare and talked with students in a trauma-informed, emotionally responsive way, just as I was trained to do. I attended meetings and voiced my concerns, joined and chaired committees, was invited to speak at national conferences, and even advocated for specialized programs at the county and state level. Despite all of my efforts and involvements, I recognized there was more I could do for my students and their families outside of the classroom.
My dream of becoming a delinquency and dependency lawyer began when I bought an LSAT prep book on sale and began studying in my spare time. I had read every article about being in law school the ABA had online and read the blogs of many law Twitter law students who I now follow. My dad was incredibly apprehensive—hadn’t I already done enough? My mom had no idea what to expect, except that law school sounded hard (accurate, Mom).
There wasn’t a single lawyer in my family, my friend’s families, or even in my town growing up. To be honest, I did not understand what the day-to-day would look like.
I was lucky enough to achieve the exact score I needed to apply to the local law school, which came with a price tag of $46,000 yearly. Moving away from my husband’s stable job was out of the question—it was this local school or nothing at all.
The day I received the acceptance email, my husband and I were at the grocery store. I ran through the aisles looking for him—I have never been more proud of myself. We put our groceries back VERY fast and drove home to see what, if any, scholarship I had been offered. I received enough of a scholarship to be able to cover the rest with student loans (six figures of student loans, but who’s counting).
To see the rapid changes over the last few weeks has been astounding. The accommodations I had to fight for years are now the new normal.
Law school was a dream come true for me, and honestly, I had expected to get a rejection letter or no scholarship funds. The fact that I had made it “in” carried me through the next several months, where I continued to consume all I could about law school.
Then I got to school. I had never gone to a fancy college, let alone a school where a majority of the people were coming from places of pretty substantial privilege. I quickly realized I might be far out of my element.
I would have to not only earn a scholarship, but also continue working during my 1L year just to make ends meet. This meant waking up during the wee morning hours and going to bed at midnight sometimes. I was not as able as my peers to take advantage of all law school had to offer during 1L.
In order to accept my judicial externship and clinic position, I knew I would have to leave my job. I quickly found other ways I could help support myself. Currently, I work three different paid on-campus positions and one paid off-campus position. This is the norm for students who don’t have the same financial resources as their peers.
And now, coronavirus.
Large factions of people on my campus are drawing lines in the sand about sticking with the normal curve versus going to an optional or mandatory pass/fail system. I helped organize the petition for pass/fail on my campus because I recognize this is an equity issue.
Law schools across the country love the curve—my school included. Nothing right now in law school education more starkly highlights the differences in student populations. The list of those impacted—caregivers, immunocompromised individuals, low-income students—the list is long. Why do grades matter so much to the structure of legal institutions and legal work that one term of mandatory pass/fail is somehow creating such deep divides (or rather just making them public)?
My mom has lost all her income, my dad has lost a huge portion of his, and my husband is a critical care nurse who will be working directly on a COVID-19 unit. His family is also out of work.
Did I mention that I am at home, immunocompromised, on Day 14 of being sick?
Not to mention the hours of income I was counting on have depleted rapidly—last week, I worked a mere 7.5 hours. This does not pay my bills.
But I am very lucky. For the last year and a half in law school, I have learned the tools of a legal advocate instead of a teacher advocate. The traits I sharpened as a teacher, like how to talk and empathize with people, have helped me work with juvenile clients and families who are not unlike so many of my former students. I have been able to work in delinquency and dependency law, with incarcerated youth, and as a federal judicial extern.
Having a non-traditional background helped too. Many clients I have met with and interviewed have also experienced poverty and family upheavals. I try to make sure clients know that I am someone they can talk to who does not judge their situation or circumstances, but rather provides support.
They made accommodations where they could, but for all my classes, I was still well within six feet of other students.
My judicial externship is the fanciest place I ever worked. I wore my sale suits from Express everyday and tried to wash them at home because I can’t afford dry cleaning. I could only afford to do it part time because I can’t pay for daily parking. My car is 14 years old, and the front bumper is falling off. Not to mention, I was in chambers with three other people who were truly delightful but had all grown up very privileged.
My mom sent a nasty letter to me AT WORK WITH A FEDERAL JUDGE, and I had to lock myself in the bathroom so they wouldn’t see my reaction to the manifesto she had just written about me.
I heard so many small comments made about people, especially by judges during criminal duty, that I frequently thought about how I had far more in common with those being charged than the lawyers in the room.
There’s also an extra responsibility heaped on first-generation law students. We all have to do ALL THE THINGS in law school to stand out or get the most from the experience because somehow we have to show that we belong—more so than what the other students do.
Woooo boy. So basically I started getting nervous mid-February when both my husband and doctor discussed what was coming. I bought three small tubes of Lysol wipes for school, and by then hand sanitizer was too expensive. I emailed a few allies on campus that I felt comfortable telling I was immunocompromised—and a little nervous. I also told one of my jobs that at some point I could be impacted.
By then, nobody was really panicking, and the thought of closing school or prisons seemed a bit far-fetched still. I asked for seating accommodations in class because I have really wonderful profs this term (I NEVER would have had the courage to do that as a 1L). They made accommodations where they could, but for all my classes, I was still well within six feet of other students.
I tried to get to classes a little early to use wipes without others noticing, but inevitably I was weird-wipe-girl for a few days, until finally I snapped when someone joked about the virus. I told him off (literally, that is the day I came home with a fever and odds are I caught it at school).
To see the rapid changes over the last few weeks has been astounding. The accommodations I had to fight for years are now the new normal. I’m happy the accommodations are being made, but was a little hurt to see how easy it became when non-disabled folks needed them.
Anyway, my name is Natalie. This is my story, and I just tested positive for coronavirus. I’m waiting to see if I take a turn for the better. But I am not doing well right now.
And none of this is okay.