The law is not my passion, yet I am in my third year studying to become a lawyer.
In fact, there was a time when I detested the idea of going to law school, more than any other career path. It wasn’t my dream. It was my parent’s dream, my uncle’s dream, but surely not mine. I was convinced that I would work with a non-profit, church or social services. Never a law firm.
I took the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) two times. The first time I performed poorly (at least compared to my peers). The second time I scored worse. My GPA was low for the schools I was aiming for. My near B+ average was not going to cut it.
As a result, my self-esteem plummeted. The fundamental reason why I didn’t want to go to law school was that I thought I would be bad at it. I feared failure more than anything, so I wanted to pursue paths that were better suited to my natural gifts. Consequently, I got into many heated arguments with my parents about this.
A common thread found among Asian American parents (not to be mistaken as true for all) is that they are willing to sacrifice passion and job fulfillment in pursuit of financial stability. Many immigrants from Asia have personal or familial experiences of extreme poverty and oppression, so they were willing to go to great lengths to sacrifice comfort and stability to come to America. For example, in the 1950s, when my 舅父 (uncle) was five years old, he watched early Chinese Communists take away all of the furniture from his home, leaving his family with only a bed and a cooking pan. His father had poor health, so as the oldest son, he had to take care of his three younger siblings. He began working at the age of seven, selling the tobacco he had collected from leftover cigarette butts. As he grew older, he studied hard enough to tutor students and eventually worked his way up to being a teacher. Even when my 舅父 (uncle) and my 舅媽 (aunt) immigrated to America, whenever they weren’t studying in graduate school, they were working at a restaurant. They went to their classes in the morning and studied until the library closed at 1:00 AM. My 舅媽 woke up as early as 4:30 AM to go to her nursing clinic. There were days when the two would only have rice and one chicken wing to share between the two of them. But somehow they were able to save enough money to apply for immigrant visas for my 婆婆 (grandma), 公公 (grandpa) and 姨姨 (aunt). They made tremendous sacrifices.
Given this legacy, I understood to a certain degree where my parents were coming from. With my individualistic American mindset though, I was determined to pursue my own passions and dream, even if it meant defying my parents’ will. My passion was, and still is, to advocate for the oppressed and vulnerable—the calling of Isaiah 1:17. But wait, advocate. Isn’t that what a lawyer does?
Yes, I admitted that a lawyer advocates for the same people I sought to advocate for and could very well align with my passions and dream. However, I knew it in my mind, but sure didn’t believe it in my heart.
When people ask me how I ended up North Carolina Central University School of Law, I tell them I chose Central, because I was drawn to its motto, “Truth and Service,” and historic dedication to serving the disadvantaged and marginalized as a Historically Black College & University (HBCU). I tell them it is more affordable to get in-state tuition compared to other schools.
The more accurate truth is that first, Central chose me. Then I chose it in return.
Towards the end of my senior year of undergrad at Emory University, I ended up applying to law schools to “keep the doors open.” When my 爸爸 (dad) told me I had gotten into Central, I took the news dispassionately. That night, I spoke to my friend’s parents, who I deeply respected. They affirmed that the law could truly empower me to help others. But still, I felt nothing. The next night, I lay wide awake and suddenly felt a God-given peace that “transcend[ed] all understanding,” a supernatural peace that convinced me the growing pains of law school was an opportunity that aligned with my passion for social justice after all.
Central saw something in me that other law schools didn’t. While they saw my test scores were not the best and my GPA wasn’t perfect, they saw my heart. Central sees the potential in people and creates opportunity for those who may not otherwise have it. For example, they offer a conditional admissions program “to a limited number of applicants whose credentials do not qualify them for unconditional admission but whose records nonetheless show promise of success.” Many PBAP participants end up being some of the most successful in Central’s program, showing that success not predetermined by great test scores, but rather grit, perseverance and diligence. I look at my peers and see a single mother who juggles taking care of her daughter while participating in a rigorous program. I see my “uncle” who continues to work, take care of his two little girls while still making time to study and lend a listening ear to his classmates like me. I see my sister who grew up in a neighborhood where hearing gunshots were the norm, but overcame the statistics and became the first college and law school graduate in her family. I see the same grit, perseverance and diligence that Central had seen when it admitted them.
I won’t lie - my first year of law school was hell. Every day I would come home overwhelmed with the vast amount of information I had to break down just to piece back together again. I would come home so emotionally and mentally drained that I would take one or two hours naps to “sleep off” the fatigue. My fear of failure swelled up at its worst. And I felt so alone. There were too many days when I would question my purpose and existence on this earth.
I was placed in a situation where I could no longer rely on a good reputation, achievements or friends that would constantly respond to my calls and affirm my worth. Instead, I had to rely on God as the sole source of my identity, satisfaction and worth. For the first time in my life it seemed, I had to practice the art of sword fighting, spitting out His Word to fight against all the fears, insecurities, and worries weighing upon my thin shoulders. Every week, my 舅媽 (aunt) and I would memorize a piece of scripture, repeating it over and over again, up to ten times over. For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but one of power, love, and self-discipline. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
Somehow in the midst of my struggle, I had forgotten these truths. Though I went through what felt like hell, I was able to realize how desperately I needed Jesus to keep me going. I was learning what it meant to be gold refined in the fire. I’d heard of this analogy several times before, but now I was experiencing it for myself. As explained by Pastor Tim Keller:
Gold is a precious metal, and if you put it through fire, it may soften or melt but it will not kindle and go to ashes...If put through the fire [impurities] burn off or rise to surface to be skimmed off by the gold smith. In a sense, the fire ‘tries’ to destroy the metal put into the fire but only succeeds in making it more pure and beautiful.
The truth is, law school isn’t about cramming all the information you can into your head or proving to others how smart you are. It’s about developing your discipline, your diligence, your character, your boldness.
When I’m only a second late to class and consequently am not allowed in, it’s discipline to be on time I’m learning.
When my professor calls on me and I’m not prepared for class and am publicly reprimanded (and embarrassed) for it, it’s diligence I’m learning.
When I help low-income individuals with tedious paperwork, which admittedly can be boring, it’s character to empower those without I’m learning.
When as a Supervising Editor, I give constructive criticism while I have a natural inclination to be non-confrontational, it’s boldness to speak the truth in love I’m learning.
I will never forget the time I went to the Durham Courthouse to observe a case, where our client, Esperanza*, sought custody of her sister. My supervising attorney had requested that the judge close the courtroom to the public because of the sensitivity of the details Esperanza would reveal. Esperanza's mother had forced her into prostitution at a young age. Shortly after the birth of Esperanza's sister, Esperanza took care of her sister as her own daughter. It broke my heart as I listened to the painful experiences Esperanza had to go through. However, as I watched my supervising attorney advocate for Esperanza, I was drawn to the process. And when the judge granted Esperanza custody of her sister, my heart swelled with joy. This was the first time I personally witnessed the fruits of knowing the law. This defining moment convicted me to keep on pushing through even when I didn't “feel” like studying the law, because knowing the law helped real life people, women my age, women like Esperanza. This moment showed me that while the law itself isn't my primary passion, the pursuit of law is meaningful and I must never lose sight of my passion to actualize the change the law can bring.
So, all of this, all of this that I went through was not, not ever in vain. I never thought I would say this, but I am truly thankful for this experience and opportunity. In the end, I have seen how knowledge of the law equips me to better advocate for and with people. My vision in establishing justice propels me forward to find solutions for the problems people present me with.
When I think of early civil rights advocates, like Justice Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston (“The Man Who Killed Jim Crow”), I can’t help but wonder if they had a passion for the law itself. I don’t know the answer, but one thing I know for sure: they had a passion for producing change that brought forth justice and equality for all people, no matter what color, creed or background. In the same way, I choose to dedicate my life to such a mission and use the law as a means to accomplish it. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, quoting the prophet Amos, “no, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’”
*Name changed to protect confidentiality (Esperanza means hope in Spanish).