Paul L. Caron

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Single Mother Celebrates Christmas in New Habit for Humanity Home After Persevering Through Law School

Here is an inspiring story from the Witchita Eagle about Latina Alston, a 30-year old single mother of three who overcame more obstacles than most of us will ever face to earn a law degree at Washburn and is now an assistant public defender.  Single Mother Perseveres to Earn Law Degree, by Roy Wenzl:

In her first year at Washburn, in 2004, Latina cried in class all the time, sobbing quietly while she studied torts, contract law, criminal procedure. ... The teachers had warned her that the first year breaks a lot of people. ...

Latina struggled. She nearly failed a writing exam that would have sent her packing had she not passed.

During spring break, in March 2005, she had an emotional meltdown. ...  Her car broke down. She spent $600 fixing it, and then collapsed.

When classes resumed, she failed to get out of bed. Stress, welfare, food stamps, guilt over living off her mother, and relentless study had wrecked her health. For two days, she took her kids to school and day care, but went back to bed instead of class. She was so depressed she could barely move. ... And then the phone rang.

It was another black student. There were only 12 in the first-year class.  Are you OK? Why aren't you in class? Can I help you study? Do you need anything?  Get your butt out of bed. And get back to class.

"At Washburn, the black students felt isolated, alone, except that we thought the white faculty and students were watching us, maybe waiting for us to fail," Latina said later. "So we'd pretty much made a vow that none of us were going to fail.... If I had not gotten up on my own, I think the others would have come in and dragged me out with their hands."

Her fellow black students pleaded with her not to let them down.

She got out of bed.

In early June Latina's car broke down again. She was crying in class again, facing failure. She needed a 2.0 GPA or she would wash out.

She passed. Barely. ...

She hung on, through the second year. Then the third.

The other black students helped her, as she helped them. All 12 graduated.

By the time she got her diploma in May 2007, Latina had made one of those mistakes she admits she's prone to. When she slipped into her cap and gown, she was four months pregnant, still unmarried. Dylan Wharton-Alston, her third child, was born in October 2007. ...

Latina was single, and for the next four months she studied to pass the bar exam, often with three children clinging to her, asking for help, pleading for attention. Helping her study, and cheering her on, were her African-American classmates.

She passed the Kansas bar in February 2008. ...

As Sedgwick County's newest public defender, Latina earns $45,000 a year. She owes more than $100,000 in student loans.

Her boss, Osburn, hearing her life story for the first time last week, expressed amazement that she got through law school. "I went to Washburn, too, and I had kids, but I had a wife... I had help. I can't imagine what it was like, what she did." He said Latina hadn't told him how hard it was for her to get through. ...

In the 19 months since she returned to Wichita, Latina has slept every night in one bedroom with her children. The room is at her mother's house, the same tiny, two-bedroom dwelling where Latina grew up. There are holes in the floor where rodents come in; the windows let in winter chill; a tree is growing through the back of the house.

But last week Latina signed the papers on a Habitat for Humanity house that she qualified for and helped build. In that house, Latina has given her mother a room to herself; Latina will sleep on the living room couch. ...  They closed on the house on Wednesday.

"My mother has no retirement, no savings," Latina said last week. "She's given her whole life away, to her children, to her grandchildren. So yeah, she gets a room in the new house."

In that house this Thursday, the Alston family will celebrate Christmas.

On Legal Blog Watch, Carolyn Elefant blogs about the story in Law Student's Experience a Triumph Over Racism, or Typical?:

Alston's story comes across as a feel good Horatio Alger tale -- and yet as of this posting it has generated 152 comments [now 198], many of them negative. At least half of the commenters criticized Alston for her remarks about the racism she faced at Washburn, where she was one of only twelve black students in the entire class. ...

The article also focuses on how it was Alston's fellow black students who encouraged her to finish law school and cheered her on as she studied for -- and subsequently passed -- the bar.

For me, Alston's comments soured an otherwise uplifting story. Personally, I think the typical law school environment discourages all students equally, no matter their gender or race. Virtually every lawyer has a story of how they had at least one, if not more, arrogant Kingsfield-ian professor and put up with silly competitive antics (like stealing tests from the library or hiding books needed for an assignment) from cutthroat students willing to do anything to make law review and snag a job. But like so much else in life, all that nonsense serves as a rite of passage to get where you want to go.

Still, perhaps I'm wrong. Maybe the racism that Alston faced at her law school was far more pervasive, so much so that she felt compelled to include it as part of her story.

What do you think? Do law schools wait for black students to fail or intentionally isolate them from the student body? What was your experience?

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I graduated from Washburn Law in 2000. I am not a minority, but I attended and enjoyed fund-raising and social events put on by HALSA and BLSA (Hispanic and Black law student associations.) When I was there, these organizations were very active and visible. I take issue with Ms. Alston's perception that Washburn is a racist environment.

Out of necessity, I worked full-time while attending Washburn, but managed to stay in the top 25% of my class. I did some crying, too, and felt unappreciated by certain professors, but remained calm and professional while in class. I think that Ms. Alston's experience was very subjective and possibly influenced by emotional problems not race.

Posted by: Teague | Dec 29, 2008 8:53:36 AM

If I have $145k in school debt and nothing else, can I get one of these free houses?

Posted by: Sandra | Dec 29, 2008 8:29:33 AM

1) A commenter said that "one does not study for hours yet fail to maintain a 2.0 average..." I wish that were true, but I know it's not. One can, and does. One can also take an exam drunk, and do quite well. (I saw/smelled the student during and after the test, and saw the grades report posted to his fridge later). I really wish that people would stop pretending there is an exact correlation between grades and effort. There isn't.

2) I found more open, race-based hostility, as well as more cluelessness, in law school than I ever did in the rural area where I grew up. Professors made comments about Asians being interchangeable, students made references to black liking watermelons, and insisted that well-known racist phrases, such as, "jewed down..." were "just funny" or "something people say." Law students are stressed and often quite socially inept. I agree that law school is hard on everyone in different ways. I'm not a minority, but my impression was that being one adds an extra layer of torture to an already painful process.

3) I admire this woman for persevering. Law school is hard enough without trying to figure out how to get your car repaired, and child care issues. I hope she does well as a lawyer. I hope more people who face poverty try to follow her example., And I hope law schools can become a little more tolerant toward students who are not 23 years old, not completely unencumbered by real-world responsibility, and not able to charge any and all expenses to Sallie Mae. Law school's extremely high costs seem very bubble like now, in that they are untethered by any relation to the real-world value of the degree for the great majority of graduates. I don't expect the law schools to become charities, but a little more social responsibility seems appropriate.

Posted by: Elizabeth | Dec 29, 2008 6:51:36 AM

Incredible. This is a not a story about a bad experience in law school. The woman got through law school. The woman had it easy in law school. That she did not have it easy outside of law school That she was even allowed to become a member of the bar is crazy. She has mutliple children with different men. Isn't there some morality requirement? Why her angst over a traffic violation? It is not as if it were alcohol related which would have been an over the top indication of a careless disregard of people around her.

Posted by: Ernie Menard | Dec 26, 2008 12:15:15 PM


Posted by: anon | Dec 26, 2008 12:15:15 PM

Before any comments I make are misconstrued, let me state that I am black. I find this story tiring, melodramatic,and it's subject painted in a overly heroic manner.
One does not study for hours but fail to maintain a 2.0 GPA. Her "legal troubles" were pretty minor, they were for traffic violations, which was more indicative of financial strain rather than legal misdeeds. While I applaud her perseverance, she exhibited signs of weakness- i.e. the whole crying in class bit. I am very happy that she has turned her life around financially and has helped her deserving mother. However,I find her story to be no harder than most single parents' who choose to attend law school. I dislike the use of the race card. I am not denying that blacks are underrepresented in law schools. I attend a Tier 1 law school and of the 200 students accepted each year, there has never been more than 15 black among them. A more typical number is 7-8 blacks per year.
I am also a single parent who immigrated to the United States 10 years ago. I started law school three years ago with a 6 yr old child in tow and unemployed by choice. I made the decision to quit my full-time job in order to attend law school full time. I made plans attend law school and planned accordingly financially as well. I had gone through undergrad working full time with a two year old at home and wanted the full law school experience. I graduated cum laude and scored a 167 on the LSAT qualifying me to attend a Tier 1 law school of my choice. During my first year of law school my mother became ill in my home country. She was dying of cancer. I fought with immigration for several months to get my mother here so she could receive treatment for a deadly form of cancer. I succeed in that battle but had no idea how difficult it would be to watch my mother go through cancer treatment. I had to become her full time nurse because I could not afford to pay for one.
At the end of my first year I had a GPA of 3.78 and was in the top 10% of my class. I have never fallen out of the top 10% or had my GPA diminish although my mother's health continued to deteriorate and she was completely dependent on me financially and physically. I am ending my third year with thr full expectation that my GPA and class rank will remain at their current status. I am one of the lucky few law students who chose well when selecting an employer so I have a big law job waiting for me in the fall in a very stable firm.
To sum, I have a young child, an ailing, dependent mother, and a great GPA and class rank. I maintained my household, paying my mortgage and for my child's enrichment activities so she wouldn't have to sacrifice too much while I pursued my dream and took care of mother. I admit I did not spend enough time with my daughter during this period but by all appearances, she has come through it all unscathed. I tell this story not to boost myself up but to explain why I don't see her struggles as too particularly difficult. I wish her all the luck but this story does not celebrate her, instead it exploits her.

Posted by: | Dec 26, 2008 12:15:15 PM