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CLEO EDGE – MCCA Pre-Law Scholarship Spotlight

CLEO Salutes MCCA, One of Its Pipeline Partners for
Its More than 25 Years of Service to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion


MCCA is creating a sustainable movement with our commitment and moving one step closer to achieving its mission.

Through MCCA’s generosity, 21 students were granted a scholarship to CLEO’s pre-eminent program the Pre-Law Summer Institute (2022). Visit MCCA (Minority Corporate Counsel Association) to learn more about them and the work they do!

The recipients are below, along with their hometown, and the blog post article that each student was required to write during the CLEO 2022 Pre-Law Summer Institute, which was posted by the hosting law school Penn State Dickinson Law.


Keeli Siyaka

Maplewood, Minnesota 

“We live in a reality now, a time where I would say to anyone, protect your spirit. Protect your spirit because you’re in the place where spirits get eaten.”
— John Trudell 

With all that is happening in our legal system right now, all that is happening to our justice system, I am reminded of this quote by one of my favorite Dakota activists, John Trudell. These words ring true for those of us with gentle spirits. I am a quiet person by nature. Incredibly empathetic, I cry whenever someone around me shows the slightest sign of a tear. Growing up, I thought this was a weakness. As an adult, I recognize it is a strength. It has brought me to where I am now.  

One misconception about my ancestors of the Dakota Oyȧte, the Dakota Nation, is that we were a people in constant conflict. Indeed, my ancestors were warriors but to them and to many of us now, it simply meant that we had a responsibility to always care for our relatives. The measure of a man and a woman was not by how many possessions they could accumulate or how successful they were in battle. We were measured by how much we gave to our communities and how we cared for those in need: the elderly, the young, and those less fortunate among us.  

These are the values that drive me today; that give voice to a once quiet girl. I constantly think about my ancestors and the legacy they left me, surviving unimaginable hardships and even genocide at the hands of the U.S. Empire. They dreamed of a new generation of warriors, protecting our communities and standing up for our home. We once had universal healthcare, women’s rights, and an abundance of nutritious food in the place now called Minnesota (to the Dakota, Mni̇sota Makȯc̣e). Now, I see so many who are homeless, struggling, and fighting for their very lives. I owe it to the generations to come to fight for them as my ancestors did for me. This fight is for our very future but also to restore the rights of human beings and the lands, skies, and everything in between as they once were. 

I am incredibly inspired by the future attorneys in my CLEO cohort. But I want to remind my colleagues, my allies in this field, to protect your spirit. I recognize fully that we are entering a system that was not meant for us. Many of our ancestors could not vote, did not have bodily autonomy, and could not exist peacefully in this country. The work we have put in to get here and the obstacles we have overcome are beyond measure. And there is no doubt in my mind that we have earned our right to be here, and we have more than earned our right to effect change. But as hard as you work and as hard as the fight gets, please protect your spirit. Take time for yourself. Don’t let a difficult path, a discouraging news story, or a hard assignmentharden your heart. We must keep our gentleness in a profession meant to challenge us every step of the way. 

I wrote this letter to my CLEO Colleagues, but I also wrote it for me. To remind myself on my hardest days in law school and my legal career to remain empathetic and true to myself.

-Keeli Siyaka, 2022 CLEO Pre-Law Summer Institute Participant

Lenisha Gibson

Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Fannie Lou Hamer once stated, “When I liberate myself, I liberate others. If you don’t speak out ain’t nobody going to speak out for you.” This so profoundly connects to my commitment to social justice because I acknowledge that as being a Black woman in the South, so many of my identities are connected to the liberation of myself and marginalized communities that I am prepared to make a substantial commitment at this point in my life to impacting social justice. Commitment is about dedication to a particular belief and willingness to be involved. Over the years, living, working, and building within the South to develop a new vision of this region of the country, has played a major role in different outcomes I want to see in political, economic, and social aspects of life. From being an organizer to becoming a lawyer, principles of justice, self-determination, mutual aid, and equity have and will continue to play a role in practicing as a social engineer. For years, I have been grappling with the challenges, and conflicts of creating new alternatives, and as much as I am invested in overcoming those obstacles, I am invested in building black political power and experiencing the victory together.

In the South, white legislators used Jim Crow laws to deprive black people throughout the region of the opportunity to vote based on race. Today, most of the same southern states use those same tactics to disenfranchise marginalized communities from civic participation and continuous oppression through state violence. As an attorney, I plan to be a movement lawyer still committed to dismantling “Stand Your Ground”, voter suppression laws, and pre-emption laws that prevent local municipalities from implementing progressive legislation in fear of state-level repercussions. As an attorney, I hope to work on decriminalizing marijuana throughout the South and breaking disparities within the prison system. I am committed to tackling these issues and many more because, for the past ten years, I have consistently been invested in changing these outcomes in marginalized communities as an organizer and strategist, and I will continue as an attorney.

I am grateful for the CLEO PLSI program because it has enhanced my determination to become an attorney and combat major issues tackling our society currently. While studying in CLEO, the SCOTUS dropped pivotal decisions that will impact the lives of so many from adverse backgrounds such as overturning Roe v. Wade, the inability to sue for Miranda rights, upholding religious protections in public schools, and striking down concealed handgun laws. Amid the concerning decisions, and harrowing implications I am inspired by my peers’ strength, determination, and power to overcome. This cohort has reminded me to speak out, fight, be empathetic and study hard. For many of us, our liberation is deeply tied to this commitment and thus the liberation of others.

-Lenisha Gibson, 2022 CLEO Pre-Law Summer Institute Participant

Joely Williamson

Austin, Texas

Karam Talib

Twin Falls, Idaho

My name is Karam Talib. I was born and raised in Iraq. I became disabled in 2003, and moved to the Land of Dreams, the United States of America, in 2011. I have been living in Twin Falls, Idaho since I came to America. I graduated high school in 2013, College of Southern Idaho (CSI) in 2018, and Grand Canyon University (GCU) in 2021. I earned my Criminal Justice degree from CSI, and Bachelor of Arts in Government with an emphasis on legal study from GCU. Currently, I plan on earning the Juris Doctor (JD) to be a lawyer, possibly in the state of Idaho.

Growing up as a disabled refugee and without rights or privileges have made life very tough and challenging. That experience left me with a question, how to survive? I have only one hand and when I have obstacles and challenges I call mom as an imposition on my ability. Yeah, I don’t wanna give up because it led me directly to the answer, education or knowledge. When I lived in Iraq and Syria, I was bullied to the point that hiding my hand in my pocket became a habit. However, education was my friend and Savior because it kept me busy or distracted from all the negativity, and gave me a better life.

Looking back, it makes me think of how lucky I am to be where I am in life. I overcame many obstacles and challenges and survived death, assuming that God wanted good for me. Despite that, I have been given an opportunity, CLEO-PLSI, to attain my purpose in life by helping the weak/vulnerable, upholding the law equally, and ensuring justice is served equally.

Mistakenly, I thought CLEO-PLSI was a program that prepares students for the LSAT. It turned out that the program is actually preparing students for 1L (first year of law school). The first two weeks of the program have been rough and beyond my expectations. Too much reading, writing, remembering, to name a few, including nightmares. However, I survived through that as well just fine with the experience, knowledge, and resources to put to use in the following four weeks.

Overall, I am glad I have found my purpose in life, and the fact that I do not need to worry about surviving the threat of death. Instead, I focus on my dreams, goals, and happiness. I have accepted disability as a permanent status, but will never allow it to be a barrier to my purpose. Personally, it flows within me the idea of being called into the legal field because I will make changes.

-Karam Talib, 2022 CLEO Pre-Law Summer Institute Participant

Gabrielle Atwell

Altadena, California

I feel truly fortunate as one of the first to write a blog post because much like my admission’s journey, I imagine in 6 weeks I am going to be very much humbled. It has only been 2 days, and I already feel lost, overwhelmed, and incredibly worried that next Friday I’ll be asked to leave. Luckily, I know a lot of that is imposter syndrome and something that reminds me everyday to keep pushing is my daughter. I don’t just push myself to be the best mother because my daughter deserves it, but the universe has inspired me through her in mysterious ways. For example, almost every night, my daughter asks me to read “ABC What Can She Be: Girls Can Be Anything They Want to Be from A- Z.” Now this might sound inconsequential, but if you read a book that tells you to follow your dreams every night, sometimes 3 times a night, you start to believe it. It was as if every night I was not only instilling in my daughter that her dreams were attainable, but I was praying, manifesting, and inspiring myself as I read the various careers aloud; two careers they mention are judge and lawyer.

I had decided I wanted to go to law school and eventually become an attorney long before I became a mother. I was an advocate to my core throughout my formative years, often being told I was too outspoken. I found myself in middle and high school consistently being the one questioned for reprimanding people for using the word gay as an insult, white people using the n word, and even criticizing slut shaming, years before the term was widespread. I didn’t understand why my school system tolerated the injustices, deeming the perpetrators as immature and telling me that I was worse for fighting fire with fire; I learned to use argumentation to stand up for what I believed in, but would think my efforts were futile until years later I was told my appreciation from several peers. My love for argumentation and advocacy grew as I committed to studying Conflict Communications while pursuing my undergraduate degree. Even when everyone told me I wouldn’t be able to do anything with that major I knew my end goal was law school. As a first-generation prospective law student, knowing that I could go to law school with any degree was just about the only thing I knew about law school. The only lawyer I knew was a disbarred alcoholic that worked at my after-school job with me and, unfortunately, he wasn’t much help. After taking the LSAT and doing poorly, I felt that my dreams were unattainable. I thought that was the end.

Embarrassingly enough, TikTok and social media changed my view. No, not for the ones I have tried to make, but I was able to build a community of lawyers, law students, and prospective law students who helped guide and encourage me through the journey so far. I learned about negotiating scholarships, LSAT score addendums, personal statements, what to expect in law school and so much more. Much like the structural systems that I wanted to change, there seemed to be a secret world of law school admissions that kept every detail under lock and key to succeed. I was able to break into that community and was met with so much support. That sense of community is something I am hoping to take away from this journey at CLEO PLSI. Everyone reading this blog post is going to be a colleague to another. Our network is expanding tremendously through this experience, and I am hoping throughout the next 6 weeks and beyond I can be a resource, a cheerleader, and a friend. I feel so blessed to be in the presence of changemakers and hope we can all come together through this adventure to make the legal system something we can be proud of. So, when this course gets harder, and I know it is going to, I hope you will all remember that we are in this together and you can be anything you want to be from A-Z!

Gabrielle Atwell, 2022 CLEO Pre-Law Summer Institute Participant

Jazmin Green 

Vicksburg, Mississippi 

Everyone has family stories that are passed down for generations and are told time and time again. My most treasured family story has built a framework of true resilience and knowledge of perseverance, that I aspire to share with others.

In 1835, Daniel Bell, my fifth great grandfather sued for his freedom and won, after he won slaveholders threatened to kidnap and re-enslave my grandfather if he tried to emancipate his wife and children. When his effort to emancipate his wife and children fail, my grandfather would go on to lead the largest slave escape attempt in American history. My family’s stories have taught me that life’s challenges are inevitable, but they are meant to be conquered through determination and resiliency.

Upon receiving my bachelor’s degree, I intended to start law school immediately after graduation. After studying and preparing, I did not receive admission to law school. The rejection felt crushing, many phases of emotion followed the rejection, then it hit me. I felt the overwhelming responsibility to move forward. The same determination and resiliency that drove my great grandfather’s unflinching fight for freedom, taught me the true spirit of perseverance.

There is a lesson in every single stumble, fall, and detour. Keep an open mind about what the journey toward your goal is supposed to look like, things rarely happen the way that we foresee them in the beginning. If you have dreams, the road to achieving them will sometimes be discouraging. Every single waking day we have a choice to knock down life’s barriers. No matter what happens, stay the course.

A recurring theme in most of our lives is adversity. It can be expected that challenges and roadblocks are to appear but in pursuance of success, you must learn to recover quickly. Rapid recovery after failure is a skill that must be developed. Regardless of the challenges you face, the goal is to turn tragedy into triumph. Conquering adversity with resilience is the key.

At this point in life, I’ve learned that the essence of obstacles is to strengthen yourself to go beyond your previous limits. Close your eyes and think of someone you love, imagine your mission is to save them from a life of oppression. This is the passion of my great grandfather that we could all use in our law school journey.

Everyone has family stories that are passed down for generations and are told time and time again. My most treasured family story has built a framework of true resilience and knowledge of perseverance, that I aspire to share with others.

In 1835, Daniel Bell, my fifth great grandfather sued for his freedom and won, after he won slaveholders threatened to kidnap and re-enslave my grandfather if he tried to emancipate his wife and children. When his effort to emancipate his wife and children fail, my grandfather would go on to lead the largest slave escape attempt in American history. My family’s stories have taught me that life’s challenges are inevitable, but they are meant to be conquered through determination and resiliency.

Upon receiving my bachelor’s degree, I intended to start law school immediately after graduation. After studying and preparing, I did not receive admission to law school. The rejection felt crushing, many phases of emotion followed the rejection, then it hit me. I felt the overwhelming responsibility to move forward. The same determination and resiliency that drove my great grandfather’s unflinching fight for freedom, taught me the true spirit of perseverance.

There is a lesson in every single stumble, fall, and detour. Keep an open mind about what the journey toward your goal is supposed to look like, things rarely happen the way that we foresee them in the beginning. If you have dreams, the road to achieving them will sometimes be discouraging. Every single waking day we have a choice to knock down life’s barriers. No matter what happens, stay the course.

A recurring theme in most of our lives is adversity. It can be expected that challenges and roadblocks are to appear but in pursuance of success, you must learn to recover quickly. Rapid recovery after failure is a skill that must be developed. Regardless of the challenges you face, the goal is to turn tragedy into triumph. Conquering adversity with resilience is the key.

At this point in life, I’ve learned that the essence of obstacles is to strengthen yourself to go beyond your previous limits. Close your eyes and think of someone you love, imagine your mission is to save them from a life of oppression. This is the passion of my great grandfather that we could all use in our law school journey.

-Jazmin Green, 2022 CLEO Pre-Law Summer Institute Participant

Erika T. O’Neal

Houston, Texas 

Gratefulness came to mind when I began to reflect on my life and the journey leading to law school. The road hasn’t always been smooth, I endured some potholes and pitstops along the way, but it has all been worth it. “Better is the end of a thing than the beginning.” Ecclesiastes 7:8.

Born to teenage high school graduates, some thought my destiny would be to repeat the cycle of teenage single motherhood living in poverty, but God had other plans for me. With faith, perseverance, and sheer determination, I changed the intended course of my life through education. I am the first person in my family to graduate with a bachelor’s degree, the first to obtain graduate degrees, and will be the first lawyer in my family. The joy that in knowing that I was able to break the cycle for my daughters and future generations to come, words really can’t describe.

I am grateful for the CLEO program; this is the first time I have ever had guidance and resources of this caliber. The structure of the program, excellent professors, and staff always there to lend a helping hand. A special thank you to Lucille Sherman (TA), who I can seek advice from to make sure I am on the “right track”, along with Barry and Talia, whenever I pop in for the TA hours.

The coursework has been very challenging, but I am learning and finding that I do have the ability to be a successful law student. Confidence in my abilities to learn and apply the law is becoming stronger by the day. Professor Otero, Dr. Whittico, Dr. Laine, Professor Martin, Professor Edobor, and Dean Dodge, have been outstanding from the program’s first week to the present. I am in awe of each instructor’s unique approach to teaching the law while encouraging us students to be “change-makers” in the legal field. Collaborating with students who are much more intelligent than I am, drives me to think deeper and gain new understandings of the law. The diversity of our 2022 CLEO Cohort is nothing short of incredible. We are a diverse group of individuals with unique perspectives who support each other, which has created the ideal atmosphere for learning and collaboration.

 The CLEO program has given me the knowledge to excel in law school and a much-needed legal foundation to build on. Through this law school journey, I will continue to be an example to my daughters, leading with grace and humility, showing kindness, uplifting everyone I may encounter and advocating for the disenfranchised.

-Erika T. O’Neal, 2022 CLEO Pre-Law Summer Institute Participant

Fredrick Shema

Boise, Idaho (Kampala, Uganda)

In Boise, my parents worked hard to provide for our family, which enabled me to attend the University of Idaho, where I majored in International Studies. While in undergrad, my passion for social justice grew and I became determined to pursue a career that would enable me to improve the lives of refugees. During a summer research project, I studied the strategies employed by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to improve the Nakivale refugees’ resettlement process. I admired the work of the UNHCR and became determined to develop the necessary skills to work for them. To that end, I began volunteering for refugee organizations. In this capacity, I serve as a translator for refugees in the Boise area (I speak six languages) and work for the International Rescue Committee as an intermediary between school districts and refugee students. 

In law school, I will develop additional skills to help me continue to advocate for refugees. I am especially interested in immigration sector and its potential to inspire determination and hope in refugees like me. 

I have witnessed firsthand the power of determination and hope. These values, combined with my experience in the Nakivale camp, will serve me well in both law school and my legal career. I am determined to fulfill my dream of working for the UNHCR, advocating for the Nakivale camp, and providing hope to refugees. 

I was blessed this summer when I came across CLEO program, and got accepted in this year’s cohort. The program has exceeded my expectations because of the amazing peers, professors and knowledge that I have gained about law school in such a short time. I’m determined to use the same attitude as I prepare for my first year in Law School this fall. I’m grateful for all the opportunities I have gained in CLEO and will utilize them in my new journey of law school and continue to pave the paths for more refugee students like me.

-Fredrick Shema, 2022 CLEO Pre-Law Summer Institute Participant

Courtney Gazmarian

Los Angeles, California

Service is the rent that you pay for room on this earth.

– Shirlee Chisholm

This quote has always resonated with me throughout my life especially as a biracial woman of color. Growing up as a product of my Mexican American father and African American mother, the expectation was to always maximize my voice and stand up for those unable to do it themselves. I understood early on that society did not want to hear or listen to certain voices, and my mom would always say “when they go low you go high”. I never quite understood what she meant until I came of age to internalize what it meant to be categorized into certain boxes. These boxes that I was put in seemed to confine me, but my parents instilled a different view,  be prideful of my ancestry and to go beyond that box. I was constantly told it was my responsibility to take the torch next and contribute to society in a way that would Ignite my passions as well as commit myself to positively impacting my community. Service to me is not seen as a one-time commitment it is a lifelong, gradual race to uplift and educate communities who need their voices heard. The thought processes and habits that were ingrained in me at such a young age have further pushed me to want to give my service in another capacity, the law.

Although my journey to law school has not been easy, I am reminded daily that we all come from different walks of life, and nothing is impossible with the proper mindset to accomplish your goals. My journey has led me to CLEO thus far and I could not be happier to be apart of such an amazing cohort and organization. Before the start of the program, I had so much apprehension and questioned my ability to perform well. We were emailed upon acceptance that this program would encompass a six weeklong “rigorous” simulation of the law school experience. The first day was daunting and I can confidently say Imposter Syndrome crept in. I was fearful I wasn’t going to look smart, I told myself everyone is so much smarter than me, and I second guessed my belonging. However, this mindset and attitude quickly changed after listening to each of our professors tell us that we are right where we need to be and the outpouring of support and mutual feelings my cohort expressed. We quickly learned that we in fact do belong, and that fear turned into excitement which then turned into engagement. I have watched my classmates come out of their shells and share their stories and eloquently make their points after being cold called by our professors. It has been impactful to have one another to lean on in this shared experience as well as see my own confidence grow. CLEO has given us an opportunity of a lifetime to learn, grow and engage not only in the realm of the law but in our relationships with one another as well as ourselves. I appreciate the plethora of materials and support that this program has provided us and everyday I’m excited to learn, expand my mind and see my classmates!

I am incredibly grateful for every professor we have had because each one has left us with a greater sense of purpose and confidence in our abilities. CLEO is an all-encompassing program that has given us strategies for success in our studying such as case briefing, IRAC and many more tips and tricks pertaining to law school. Although I am going into my fifth week of the program, I have no doubt that I will come out with a sharpened mind and an overall better human because of CLEO. We are reminded daily that our voices are needed, and this opportunity will further push all of us to go pursue a career in law and give our service for the betterment of society.

– Courtney Gazmarian, 2022 CLEO Pre-Law Summer Institute Participant

Erick Ruiz

Long Beach, California

My journey to law school has taken many twists and turns. My story starts back in January 2017, when Donald Trump became president. I was so enraged by his election that I changed my major from nursing to political science. Now this change was not immediate. I spent many years in trouble with the law, and going to court for three years, I began to observe the lawyers in the courtroom and how they commanded an audience. Commanding attention and being unapologetic are some of my proudest attributes. In one of my first classes, Constitutional Law, I could apply these abilities to active debate with my classmates, and so after that, political science and law seemed like the perfect fit for me.

Fast forward to Fall 2018, I got my first glimpse into the legislative process by getting a coveted internship with Congresswoman Linda T. Sanchez, CA-38. I did not know what to expect going in, but probably to become the office errand boy; it ended up being much more. In the midterm elections, the Democrats finally took back the House. A couple of weeks later, my congresswoman signed a letter asking that Nancy Pelosi not be elected Speaker of the House from the Democratic Caucus. The outrage poured in from people all over the country. Let’s just say it was never a dull moment dealing with a constituent. I enjoyed seeing the hard work of the legislative aides and how their work had a direct impact on changing policy and law. I thought, WOW, I could be a congressman or senator one day and use my law degree and platform to make changes to the law from the front lines. However, seeing how many of these politicians act, I quickly gave up on that dream.

Now to a more recent time, in August 2019, I was elected Board President of the Long Beach State Law Society. During this time is where I saw my love and intrigue for the law manifest. I met admissions directors, visited campuses, and attended conferences directly related to the law. During one of those interactions, I found out about CLEO. I was not sure of what it was, but I was intrigued. Back then, I did not think I would have a mediocre LSAT score or a lower GPA when I graduated, which made Law School more of a distant possibility. When I read about what CLEO stood for and how it helped disadvantaged students get into law school, I felt it was worth checking out. Applying and enrolling in this program is one of the best decisions I have made.

I am beyond blessed to have met some of the most amazing people in this program. From the fantastic professors, dedicated administrators, and the originality of my cohort, CLEO has taught me the importance of community and our duty as legal professionals to promote justice and equality. I hope my cohort and I will create lasting change and assist in making the legal profession accessible for decade

– Erick Alexander Ruiz Jr. 2022 CLEO Pre-Law Summer Institute Participant

Alan Huang

Chicago, Illinois

"Someone is talking to me about the light at the end of the tunnel
And all I can think of is after.
What happens after we meet the light.
After the grief ends.
After we walk into happiness.
Won’t there be another tunnel,
Another painful passage,
Another trauma simply waiting?
And the answer is, yes….”

That was my thought when I was alone, lying in the hospital under white fluorescent lights in 2016 for cancer treatment. Unlike many people who have family members handling the process, I was the only person the doctors could communicate the treatment plan, payment, and every other aspect of my hospitalization. I managed everything with an oxygen mask on and the fifth IV needle in my arm. When I look back, I should have been scared, but all I could think about at that moment was what I needed to do to survive. For me, it was just another unfortunate event in my life that I needed to endure.

After growing up in poverty and dictatorship, I came to the U.S. alone at the age of 18. Living in the middle of nowhere in Ohio, the extreme inequality and discrimination against every fiber of my being-as an immigrant, a people of color, and a homosexual man- forced me to retreat into my shell. That hostility almost extinguished my hope to become a lawyer and nearly shattered my dream of finding a better life, my American Dream.

But my close encounter with death made me realize that if I died, I did not want my suffering to define me but rather my actions. Each misfortune becomes a blessing. They made me stronger. I no longer shy away from challenges but rather take on them with joy and hope. Why?

…Because in the book being,
Life promised to be a moving thing.
It promised to be both fight and flourish.
It vowed to be both lesson and respite.
So the love will end.
The light will end.
The joy will end.
And as we keep walking,
We find it again.”

-Nikita Gill, More Notes on Survival

I was lucky enough to have met my partner, who unconditionally supports my professional development; to have met my mentors, who tirelessly guided my way; to have found you all, whom I am proud to call my community. There have always been people trying to silence us or tell us that our beings and rights are inferior. Except now, we no longer shy away from the fight. We have won against rape, cancer, and disabilities. If they want to fight, we say bring it on.

– Alan Huang, 2022 CLEO Pre-Law Summer Institute Participant

Braxton Thomas

Tupelo, Mississippi

If I told my story, it would take the duration of the CLEO program. So instead, I’ll summarize a specific event in my life that truly radicalized me. It was the fall of 2016 when the concept of purpose, for me, shifted. My purpose, in this world, became crystal clear. Keep reading.

Three of my sorority sisters and I were leaving Baskin Robins in Flowood, Mississippi, when we were abruptly pulled over by the police. “PUT YOUR HANDS UP! TURN THE D— CAR OFF,” they demanded. Forcing us out of our car, the police officers erroneously suspected that we had stolen $1,000 worth of merchandise from a Lowe’s store nearby. To this day I am not sure why the police would think that four young women, in business attire, would steal from Lowe’s. However, despite our full compliance with their demands, the police were distasteful and unnecessarily aggressive. Pulling us by our clothing, two of us were handcuffed and the other two were forced to lean on the car with their hands on top of the roof. After a series of questions, the energy shifted when I told the officers, with tears in my eyes, that we were students at Millsaps College in Jackson. Taken aback, the officers then attempted to conciliate us and justify their behavior.

That incident fueled my passion for advocacy, especially for those who are victims of police brutality and misconduct and those who are marginalized and underrepresented. While the traumatic experience left me in shambles, it took me a while to realize that there was an underlying purpose. I realized that if I am going to bat for people and families who truly need my help, I should have some understanding of their pain. Our experiences shape us and provide context as we navigate our fields of study. Since the fall of 2016, I have been converting my pain to purpose.

I am most thankful to be a part of the CLEO program. This program has further defined my reason. Learning from each professor has been rewarding within itself. The jumpstart to law school has given me confirmation that I can do it! Learning how to approach legal work and develop tips and study methods has also been helpful. I am amazed by the resources and opportunities we have been granted. Studying amongst this diverse group of peers reminds me that we are needed in the legal profession. Our insight and expertise are valuable among a wide range of issues. Through my incident in 2016 and the CLEO program, I am constantly reminded that my journey and experiences are Bigger Than Me!

-Braxton W. Thomas, 2022 CLEO Pre-Law Summer Institute Participant

Michelle Guzmán

Chicago, Illinois

This past January my godmother invited me to go to church with her at a church called Chicago Tabernacle. When she extended the invitation I didn’t think I would walk out impacted by three simple words. One of the associate pastors was preaching and he began his sermon by stating “little by little”. I was so confused by what he meant by “little by little”. He continued expressing how sometimes we need to take baby steps and take one thing at a time. Sometimes as humans we rush what WE WANT which can cause our vision to become blurry. As a result, we miss out on the bigger picture. We will all have to sacrifice things and relationships that are going to hold us back from reaching our dreams and fulfilling our purpose. As I soaked in his profound words, I broke inside. What he stated was what I was exactly going through.

In this recent season of my life, I was experiencing a lot of change that I did not realize how much of a big toll it was taking on me. I was conflicted in different aspects of my life. I questioned if I was “smart enough” to get into law school after taking the LSAT three times. I was angry that I was back in Chicago after moving away from Michigan. I was back in the state where so much trauma, negligence, and hurt occurred. I was constantly reminded of what I endured and I did not understand why out of all places Chicago again? Why was justice coming now after so many years? Through time I realized I had a lot of closure to do before embarking on a new journey in my life.

I am nervous to be starting law school while also going to trial to fight for justice. Not all survivors receive justice, let alone do they get a second chance for justice. However, I was reminded that I need to go “little by little”, so I do not get overwhelmed. Testifying against my birth father one more time horrifies me and I am scared to look at him in his eyes again. However, I want him to know that he does not define me nor what he did to me. I will fight for justice until every possible door is shut. It may not be the justice I wanted when I was that thirteen-year-old girl, but I know justice is coming.

I am not that 18-year-old girl who left Chicago so broken and lost. I was constantly in survival mode my whole life, but I decided I did not want to survive, I wanted to LIVE. I was so focused on what I wanted that I could not see the bigger picture of why all this unsudden change was happening. It has been an emotional rollercoaster, but my ambition and determination were much bigger.

Dean Dodge and Ms. Sherman, thank you for being our backbone and support during these intensive six weeks. Your support and motivation have been so reassuring and encouraging. Dean Dodge, I appreciate the positive energy you bring everywhere, it is definitely contagious. Ms. Sherman, I am so excited to see where your law school journey takes you, I am confident you will impact many people and systems! Thank you for your help and support throughout this process, I am beyond grateful.

To CLEO CLIC, Muchas gracias! You gave me that ONE YES that I was seeking and tirelessly fighting for so hard. Thank you Ms. Hayes for every call you answered when I felt discouraged and I questioned my capabilities. You gave me the tough love that I needed and reminded me that I can do it.

To my fellow CLEO fellows, let’s all take this new journey we are about to enter together, “little by little”. It can be overwhelming, but remember how deserving you are of this opportunity. You all are the most fierce and committed advocates, and an incredible inspiration. I feel so hopeful and encouraged for all the individuals, families, and systems you will influence in your career as a lawyer, judge, politician, senator, or whatever career path you choose. I will be in the crowd cheering you on! And of course, “fue un placer tener estas seis semanas con ustedes familia!”

-Michelle Guzman, 2022 CLEO-CLIC Pre-Law Summer Institute Participant

Praise Sanders

Staten Island, New York

The first time I took the LSAT, I received a 139. I was a senior in college and personally I felt that I didn’t learn much of its importance until the previous summer. I assumed that the test simply tested your skill set in certain areas and it was not a test you needed to study much for like the SATs. However, I was wrong. My score was an insult to me. It diminished all the pride I had and made me face reality, which was If I don’t up my score, I will not be attending law school. 

I decided to spend money on the cheapest LSAT prep I could find, which was still expensive. At the time it was one month into the pandemic lockdown. I was working two jobs to not rely on asking my mom for money. I wasn’t confident because I genuinely suck at tests. I saw the LSAT as an enemy that made a fool of me. Yet, I still took the test, only to receive a 137. I remember waking up in my bed crying. I remember calling out of work to stay in my room. I remember the way I felt like a failure because I decided to study only to receive a lower test score. I felt embarrassed. I tried to apply to a school because I believed that my GPA of 3.7 would help balance the weight of my application. However, no school wanted me. I fell into a depression. My idea of my worth continued to deflate in my mind.  

The third time I took the LSAT I received a 142. This time, I assumed all the signs I was given were an indicator that this was the test I’d do well on. I won a blueprint LSAT course and took their accelerated course, free of charge. Plus, I was accepted into SLU CSTEP Project L.A.W. for Spring 2021. A new program associated with CUNY school of law -my dream school that helped prepared people for law school for three months and ultimately with admissions. Despite my low LSAT score I still took the chance to apply to the school, because I believed in my application, and at the end of SLU CSTEP Project L.A.W. I received an A in the course. The admissions director for CUNY school of law even spoke in one of our classes to insist that they looked beyond the LSAT score and how this program helped increased our chances of admission.  

Yet, when my application was declined and I persisted in asking the admissions team for the reason, I was told that my application was fine. There was nothing wrong with it except for the fact that my LSAT score was a few points away from the scores they accepted. I gave up on law school because I was tired of trying to show that I belonged. If my LSAT scored defined me then in my opinion there was no point. I just need the chance, and the opportunity to prove myself. I knew that I could get through law school if I could just bypass the LSAT, but no one gave me that chance. Until CLEO. It wasn’t until that door closed last year that I grew the guts to apply to CLEO. Even though I thought I didn’t stand a chance. Through that closed door I was able to bea part of a wonderful program, with intelligent people from diverse backgrounds. CLEO gave me that chance to succeed. And through each test I take, each assigned reading I do, and each homework I complete increases my confidence that I truly will be successful and that I belong here.  

And that’s what keeps me going.

-Praise Sanders, 2022 CLEO Pre-Law Summer Institute Participant

Raissa Ebeh

New York, New York

I am not a huge fan of movies. Unlike like TV shows, movies are short, and they do not allow enough time for the characters to fully develop. In many ways, my journey to law school has been like a TV show. Every stage, from registering for the LSAT to getting accepted into law school, has been plagued by its own obstacles. My character has been challenged, bent, and shaped in several ways throughout this process. Every time I felt like I had finally slayed the dragon, another one appeared with three different heads. As challenging as those obstacles were, I never once felt like giving up. I felt tired, exhausted, angry, and sad, but giving up was never on the table. In retrospect, I realize that my resilience came from my support system, my Village. It took a Village to get me to where I am today and for that I will be eternally grateful. I would like to introduce you to a few members of my village.

My mother is the most impactful member of my Village. She has been my friend, and my rock. My mom does not know much about law school, but she is a deeply religious woman, so she supports me the best way she knows how to. Through her prayers. When I was actively applying for law school during the months of November and December 2021, she fasted and prayed for forty days. When I got into one of my top law schools, I would often tell people that God answered my mother’s prayers because I did not pray for myself nearly as much as she prayed for me. She also made sure I ate regularly, and she paid for my awfully expensive LSAT prep course out of pocket. Second to my mother is my uncle. My uncle lives in Cameroon, and he has always been my biggest supporter. He never let the distance and time zone stop him from supporting me through every new adventure/project/idea. He believes in me even when I do not believe in myself. Every time I go to him with a new idea, the first thing he says is “how can I help?” He spent the last year researching about the American legal system, and by the time I started applying to law school, he knew more about the process than I did. He has been my best friend and we went through every single step of the process together. Thank you, Uncle Ju!

My siblings and friends also played a big part in supporting me through my journey. When I was studying for the LSAT, I deleted all social media applications from my phone. Getting completely disconnected from the world helped me to focus on my studies, but it also made me feel very lonely. My friends and siblings made it their mission to call me every weekend to keep me updated with all the new celebrity and family news/gossip. It made me feel like I was not missing out and it kept me disciplined (there was no reason to check social media since I was getting an update every week). They would also send me care packages and affirmation quotes periodically, which really kept me positive.

Organizations like PEMBE and the CCNY Alumni Association supported me financially and provided me with mentors. My PEMBE and CCNY mentors worked with me every step of the way, to ensure that I had all the resources I needed to succeed. One of my PEMBE mentors stayed on the phone with me for over an hour on Christmas Eve, to help proofread and edit my personal and diversity statements.

My law school journey has felt like a long, dramatic, and beautiful TV show (thankfully not as long as Grey’s Anatomy). As I look back at how far I have come, I cannot help but be grateful for all the amazing people in my life who have supported me unconditionally throughout this process. I am also immensely grateful that CLEO (Council on Legal Education Opportunity) has become part of my village. The skills and lessons I have learned in this program are invaluable. Being part of a program where people genuinely care about my success and encourage my intellectual curiosity has made me more confident in my abilities as a student. I am also more excited about law school than I was six weeks ago, all thanks to CLEO.

-Raissa Ebeh, 2022 CLEO Pre-Law Summer Institute Participant

Raj Patel

El Dorado, Kansas

These two weeks have been nothing but moments of realization of our future as law students. Professors Otero, Lain, and Whittico have given a great deal of perspective and tips for the upcoming years. My knowledge and skills have been challenged by the exercises and readings we did. Sure, the coming weeks will also do the same to test our learning and retaining material skills, but these past days were a constructive education leading to the next few weeks. My understanding on how to read opinions, write case briefs, and practice the Socratic method have grown in this program. Reading and writing are my weakness because I am easily distracted by other tasks on hand, but lately I have been able to keep my eye on the price — becoming an attorney– and focus on the task. It may be because I don’t want to give up, or the tips and steps our professors have given us made it easy to focus.

I appreciate CLEO, the professors, and the staff for the help they have given/are going to provide us with through these short programs; we are achieving a lot of knowledge before we enter our prospective law schools. However, after the two weeks of this program, I realize that the amount of time and effort we will put in our next three years to achieve our Juris Doctor will be nothing short of winning gold in a 10K marathon after years of practice. This endeavor will consume our time and effort as we will be swamped with reading and studying the law, which we should be mindful of. I plan to spend the month after this program doing things I want to accomplish and scratch off my bucket list in anticipation. Those include spending my time completing my business goals and going on at least one extended vacation, which has been long due since I started my entrepreneur journey.

I hope to see some of you at law school; we can create our CLEO Fellow study group.

-Raj Patel, 2022 CLEO Pre-Law Summer Institute Participant

Sonia "Nia" Franklin

New York, New York

Tanya Lau

Cleveland, Tennessee 

When I was nineteen years old, I had no idea I would be going down a dangerous path in a toxic and abusive marriage that would attempt to break me both mentally and physically. When I look back, I try not to think about the time lost. Everything I went through and endured led me to where I am today. I wouldn’t have a beautiful, intelligent, sassy, twelve-year-old daughter. I wouldn’t go through life with the determination, grit, and persistence I gained along the way. I know now that I have what it takes to be successful in anything I pursue.

There will always be hurdles in life that we must overcome. It’s the determination and drive to succeed that pushes you to the finish line. I promised myself that I would devote my life to becoming an advocate for people who don’t have the voice to speak up for themselves. The promise of this possibility — of living this mission and life — was my only comfort as I coped with my own circumstances as a low-income, first-generation college student, and single mother. I held on to the hope that I will impact policymakers and create positive change in society. The decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is a reminder that no liberty or right is secure in the eyes of a Supreme Court that would overturn nearly 50 years of Constitutional rights for women. I plan to dedicate my career to representing women, victims of discrimination, and anyone whose unalienable rights are breached.

Change isn’t an overnight process, and it takes constant work to make effective, lasting change in the world. A future for my daughter and others. The Notorious RBG once said, “real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” In every step I take, I have a firm and steady balance in knowing that I am one step closer to contributing to real and enduring change. Ruth Bader Ginsburg knew the path to change wasn’t easy, nevertheless, she persisted. I am so honored to be a part of such a diverse group of future attorneys and trailblazers. Being a part of CLEO has been a memorable and rewarding experience that I will cherish and carry throughout my law school journey and beyond. I have come so far and achieved more than I ever believed I was capable of and I’m just getting started.

-Tanya Lau, 2022 CLEO Pre-Law Summer Institute Participant

Tianna Marie Odegard

Granite Falls, Minnesota

Change is constant in our lives. Change is the one thing we can count on. For example, consider how technology has shifted throughout your lifetime. What does that timeline look like for you? Only ten years ago, I recall when I would carry a cell phone in order to make calls and send texts as well as an I-pod that stored all of my music and served as this wonderful gateway to accessing the internet without a desktop computer. Fast forward to today, like many people around the world, I use one electronic device that includes all of those features that, once upon a time, used to require multiple devices. I guess that is why we call this device a “smartphone.”

Before I made the shift to upgrade my devices, I distinctly remember making a fuss because the system I had worked perfectly. All my devices served their purpose and worked fine. In my opinion, there was no immediate reason for me to personally upgrade my phone and change the way I did things. Eventually, I needed to upgrade my super cool flip phone to a smartphone (R.I.P. to my flip phone) and was overwhelmed by this requirement at the beginning as this pushed me outside of my comfort zone. Then, as time went on my muscle memory and adaptation to unfamiliar environments kicked in.

Now, my brain has been conditioned to understand, for the most part, all components related to smartphones. This has taught me that adjusting to change can become second nature and cannot be a reason to justify complacency. There was a time and place for my former technology I had glorified. However, the technology companies that created these devices were never complacent for a moment after each creation and continuously strive to make newer, more advance products – so why can’t I do the same and stay on my toes to the elements of change regarding all aspects of life? Technology through the ages is just one way to depict change.

I have spent a great deal of time coming to terms with expected and unexpected change. I have developed a more appropriate personal approach to accepting and anticipating change. I understand change will consistently occur and see those moments for opportunities to grow. I cannot control the change, but I can take accountability for my contribution. I make sure I understand why a particular shift is occurring, I assess my views and feelings, and reflect on solutions for me to cope and welcome this transition of change. This process has allowed me to normalize change as part of the beauty of being human.

Professor Whittico eloquently stated to us, “Govern yourselves accordingly.” Each one of our lived experiences have brought us to this pivotal moment and the CLEO program. The view we hold regarding the challenges of law school determines our grit and willpower. We must invite and perhaps seek change in order to adjust ourselves accordingly. Without change we become complacent and irrelevant. History serves as a testament to the harmful consequences that occur when individuals are in opposition to change. We must champion and take ownership of the significant changes that will happen in our personal lives during our short tenure at law school, so we can focus on the bigger picture and the impact we will make for generations. If we come in with an open mind, our opportunities will be endless. We cannot set arbitrary limitations on our capabilities based on our insecurities. We are needed, valued, and talented. CLEO has provided us all with an umbrella to help us navigate through the torrential rainfall of our 1L year and beyond. One day, we will pass down our lived experiences to the next generation of law students so they can equip themselves with an even bigger, more reinforced umbrella to be even more effective agents of change.

– Tianna M. Odegard, 2022 CLEO Pre-Law Summer Institute Participant

Tyra Beck

Chicago, Illinois

Community development has always been a passion of mine. Growing up in Chicago and attending schools all around the city I was able to gain a unique perspective. Despite it being one of the most segregated cities in the nation, I learned that everything is interconnected in one way or another from a simple individual to a complex system. We have to rely on each other to succeed. That is why I believe my success is, in a way, determined by my community and those with who I surround myself around. Becoming a lawyer is my opportunity to give back to that same community through advocacy.

I am thrilled to be a part of the CLEO program and have the opportunity to build another community with my peers and professors. Being surrounded by like-minded individuals who are determined to work hard motivates me. The idea of law school sometimes seems daunting, but the support that I’ve received from being in this program for only 3 weeks makes it all the more exciting. Because of my peer’s insightful questions and responses, I have found my own legal understanding and skills grow in what feels like such a small amount of time. I am extremely excited to see what the rest of CLEO has to offer this summer.

-Tyra Beck, 2022 CLEO Pre-Law Summer Institute Participant

Uyen Nguyen

Raleigh, North Carolina

Like many law students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds, I am entering law school with personal baggage and childhood traumas. My determination to pursue a meaningful legal career stems from my experience being a formerly undocumented immigrant and having an incarcerated father. I have personally experienced the unfair treatment that undocumented immigrants are subjected to in this country. Currently, I work at a legal nonprofit called the Georgia Justice Project. In my work assisting formerly incarcerated individuals in their reentry to society, I have witnessed myriad ways in which involvement with the criminal justice system both creates and entrenches socioeconomic and racial inequality. Because of my unique upbringing, I have dedicated my life and legal career to advancing social justice progress.

As a future advocate, I want to elevate the voices of those who cannot make it out of the system because of the conditions they have been subjected to. My father is one of many men of color who got caught in the legal system and could not escape from it. I often ask myself: How can I tell the most disregarded group of people’s stories in ways that can garner sympathy and compassion? How can I engage their stories, hopes, and dreams in legal proceedings? How can I humanize their offenses and convey to decision-makers that they are more than the crimes that they committed? Too often, crimes are a product of structural inequalities, implicit bias, and unequal distribution of resources.

Legal education institutions, like many powerful political institutions in this country, cannot escape from the American history of racial discrimination and oppression. To this day, gatekeeping mechanisms—such as standardized testing, prep courses, expensive law school application and processing fees, favoritism, and nepotism—continue to exist and work in ways that advantage law students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. Although I have worked very hard to get admitted into the best law school that I can get into, I recognize the limitation of respectability and reinforcing the narrative that only those from elite institutions can promote changes.

In the study of law, “objectivity” and “impartiality” can sometimes be claimed by those in a position of privilege. In legal arguments, the principle of “objectivity” often dismisses the realities of the underclass, who face the consequences of choices made by our established institutions. Without recognizing the legal system’s role and our complicity in maintaining the past and even current racial hierarchy, we face the risk of improperly interpreting the idea of justice and equality and unwittingly participating, either as bystanders or perpetrators, in the oppression of people of color. Without recognizing the existing inequalities and implicit bias that law students of color are subjected to, we maintain a legal education institution that does not reflect the diversity of our society.

I would love to study the law in an objective and impartial way as well as to dissociate myself from the hardships that the marginalized community experience on the daily; however, I have come to terms with the fact that I do not have that privilege. Instead of blindly defending the legal system established during a time when the majority of the population were disenfranchised and not considered human, I want to address its flaws and advocate for the inclusion of those who were historically excluded in the legal decision-making process.

A legal career, with a good conscience and empathy, has the power to hold political institutions accountable for their actions and inspire greater social and political progress. As a future lawyer, I shoulder the responsibility to diversify the legal profession and create more spaces for those of marginalized backgrounds. While I might not have the same resources and connections as my white counterparts in law school, I am equipped with the resilience and perseverance that will empower me to excel in my legal education. For the next three years, there will be moments where I feel the need to conform to the status quo or to compromise my personal belief to fit in. In those moments, I will remind myself the power of speaking up and authenticity. Because the personal is political, I hope that we can create a just legal system where the voices of the most marginalized and disregard populations are considered and heard in judicial decision making.

-Uyên Nguyễn, 2022 CLEO Pre-Law Summer Institute Participant