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.
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?