First-generation law students, typically defined as students who are the first in their immediate families to obtain higher education, face a particular set of challenges navigating law school, from increased financial barriers to time constraints. Often they miss out on the social networks and cultural knowledge that their peers can access through family. Due to the pandemic and social distancing requirements, they’ve been contending with another layer of complexity: learning to navigate law school from their homes.
Seeing how upper-level law students study, network and interact with faculty are vital parts of learning to thrive in law school, especially for first-generation students looking for models and guidance. “One of the things that students do to figure out law school is just watch other people,” said 2L Ashley Gindle. “Maybe you’ll see a student grabbing flashcards about mid-semester, and you’ll think, ‘Oh my goodness, I need to go get flashcards.’ And then everyone has flashcards. But for the 1Ls this year, they don’t really get to see that.”
To help meet this need, Gindle and Danielle Boardley, director of diversity, inclusion & student belonging, organized a virtual DiveIN Day event on October 28 for first-generation students that provided tips on establishing study habits, dealing with imposter syndrome, interacting with faculty and networking. Panelists included Rashida West, director of pro bono and public interest programs; Theresa Gallo, assistant dean of academic & student services; 2L Charnique Johnson; 2L Ryan Trott; 3L Ceena Ford; and 3L Angelys Torres, who is a DiveIN Fellow.
Establishing Study Habits
Panelists discussed the importance of forming practical study habits. Torres spoke of a faculty member who, during her first year, said that students were “racing to the bottom,” meaning that students were in a cycle of copying each other’s study habits, even when doing so was counterproductive and led to burnout. Torres took this to heart and was able to establish study habits that worked best for her.
Ford encouraged students to capitalize on their strengths throughout the process of creating their own study routines and to see their first-generation status as an advantage. She noted that first-generation students are often very resourceful, since they are used to navigating systems with which they are unfamiliar.
Imposter Syndrome and Connecting with Faculty
Imposter syndrome is a specter with which many students wrestle, but first-generation students are especially prone to it. Panelists said the feeling of not belonging can be exacerbated in the competitive world of law school. However, these feelings are normal, and most students experience them.
“You should know that, as professors, we don’t know who you are, as far as being first-generation. The vast majority of students are lost, certainly in the first year, and even throughout law school. That feeling of not belonging, that feeling of being overwhelmed is normal,” said Professor Bret Asbury, who attended the event. Asbury then encouraged students to connect with faculty by reaching out to them and being forthcoming about where they are coming from and how they are doing.
Johnson pointed out that imposter syndrome can increase for students who are first-generation and come from an underrepresented background. Professor Yolanda Ingram agreed and said that she has felt “representation burnout,” fatigue that comes when one is representing a racial, ethnic, religious, sexual or other minority in a predominately white, heteronormative space. However, Ingram noted, “I would not trade anything for having the knowledge and the privilege of being a lawyer, to be able to affect change in this society in a way that few people can. The tradeoff is worth it, but there is definitely a tradeoff.”
West concluded by encouraging students to find safe spaces and allies within their communities to help them overcome feelings of not belonging, including building connections with faculty members. “I really encourage folks to develop relationships with their professors. We want to know you,” said West.
Possibly one of the most anxiety-inducing aspects of navigating law school and transitioning to a career is networking. “I still hate networking,” said Gallo, who is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in higher education. “I absolutely hate it, but what I’ve experienced is networking becomes easier the more comfortable you are with where you are and the more knowledge you have.”
West noted that students don’t have to network in traditional ways. “When we talk about networking, people think about the cocktail reception…but I think there are a variety of ways to increase your network. So, you want to think about and identify where is your greatest comfort level in building your network.”
Gindle recommended that students develop networking skills by having informational interviews with lawyers and people they admire to gain experience talking with strangers. Gindle said she benefited from this practice. She was able to connect with an attorney who taught her how to write outlines during her first year of law school.
Boardley ended the event by observing that the panel discussion revealed how much students, faculty and staff have in common. “It’s so valuable for me to see—and I hope you all see the value—in how much we all have that’s alike. We, of course, acknowledge our differences and the difference of our experiences, but there’s so much more that we have in common. I hope we continue to find our similarities in one another and celebrate them, along with our differences.”
Additional resources that were recommended during the DiveIN Day include: