For students who are the first in their families to attend college or graduate school, the path, in the words of 1L Raymond Magsaysay, is “overwhelming in ways I didn’t even imagine.” Similarly, as a first generation law student, 1L Jasmine Wang knew she was “entering a world intent on locking myself and those with similar backgrounds out because that world isn’t ready for change.” In this light, Penn Law’s First Generation Professionals (FGP) Fellowship aims to break down real and perceived barriers to ease students’ paths into law school and the legal profession.
The Center on Professionalism (COP) at Penn Law oversees the Fellowship. After receiving a generous donation from Penn alumnus David Silk L’88, COP was able to create a sustained mechanism to support first gen law scholars. It was initially intended to support two students each year for the next three academic years. But, pointed out Joseph Glyn, COP’s director, “The three students we selected as Fellows were so impressive that it was impossible to choose between them.”
Jasmine Wang, Leticia Salazar, and Raymond Magsaysay began their journeys as part of the class of 2022 this September. As FGP Fellows, they will act as ambassadors for similar students seeking to enter the legal profession. The Fellowship is designed to position these students for success in their law careers so that they may, in turn, help future FGP students.
Jasmine Wang was inspired by the story of Hong Yen Chang, a Columbia Law graduate who in 1890 was denied admission to take the California bar due to discriminatory technicalities in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Wang took interest in the law and, while an undergraduate, was elected into the Student Senate at Texas A&M University. Wang soon became the first Asian American and – Asian American woman – to serve as Speaker of the Student Senate, a decision that meant “spending my college career battling forces similar to the intolerance Chang endured,” said Wang.
The obstacles she faced only steeled Wang’s resolve to carve out a path for herself, to follow her ambition, and to serve as a trailblazer for other students. Wang chose to study at Penn Law after visiting as a sophomore in college. “Penn was the only school that not only discussed, but celebrated diversity, and spoke at length about how inclusion contributes to its overall student success and its mission as an institution,” noted Wang. “Because it was clear that Penn recognized the value of a diverse classroom and cohort, I was confident that it would be the best place for me to grow as a leader, scholar, and advocate.”
Leticia Salazar arrived at Penn as an undergraduate from her home in Harlem, in New York. Salazar, like Wang, recognized that inclusion was ingrained in Penn’s culture. “The nature of Penn’s encompassing energy was evident to me from the second that I stepped foot on campus,” Salazar said. “From that moment, I knew that this university was the best place for me to pursue my academic and professional endeavors.” As a Penn undergrad, she developed strong connections within the University and with the city of Philadelphia. Applying to Penn Law was an “easy decision,” she said.
Salazar studied Public Health as an undergrad and credits much of her decision to pursue law to a fortuitous pairing with mentor Professor Dorothy Roberts, a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor, who teaches in the Law School, the Sociology Department, and in the Department of Africana Studies. While working closely with Roberts on an independent research project, Roberts advised Salazar that the best education for her career ambitions in education policy was to study the law. “Because of my interest in policy and government work,” recounted Salazar, “I was excited to take advantage of the cross-disciplinary opportunities at Penn. Along with my JD, I am also pursuing a Master’s in Education Policy from Penn’s Graduate School of Education. I look forward to using this platform to make meaningful contributions to the world of education policy.”
Raymond Magsaysay’s motivations for studying the law were shaped by his experiences as, in his words, “a first-generation working-class immigrant of color.” Reflecting on his identity and his diverse work experience that includes labor organizing, direct service legal work, and teaching classes on inequality at a Spanish university, these experiences, he said “have fostered a humble faith in the law, a deep appreciation of its prodigious power to change society for the better, alongside an acute awareness of its endless limitations.”
Magsaysay noted that, while in a 1L pro bono training he perceived some of his cohort “talking as if we’re removed,” he said, from the realities students and students’ real-world clients may face. “My family has faced housing insecurity. In our training, we were talking about struggling people in Philadelphia who have suffered from terrible landlords. I’ve lived through that and I’m going to ensure my peers and I center such lived experiences in this work.” Magsaysay, like both Wang and Salazar, wishes to use his achievements to give back to other students and future clients.
Access to this elite team of mentors is a central component of the Fellowship. Presidential Assistant Professor of Law Shaun Ossei-Owusu, who joined the Penn Law faculty this year and studies stratification in the legal profession, posited, “What does being in the legal profession mean for first generation professionals, irrespective of their racial identity, who may not have certain kinds of insights into how to navigate professional worlds compared to their colleagues?” Likewise, he pointed out first gen law students will have peers “who may have parents in similar professions that can give them insights on what being a professional means.” By pairing first generation students with mentors, the hope is that there will be greater access and equity in that aspect of legal training.
Thanks to the continued generosity from alumni donors like David Silk, Penn Law is able to extend opportunities to exceptional students like the FGP Fellows. Silk, who serves on Board of Advisors for the Institute for Law and Economics, a joint venture between Penn Law and Wharton, explained his motivation for funding the program: “I am very grateful for what Penn Law has done for me, and it is incumbent upon the University and the Law School to try to make this kind of education and opportunity available as broadly as they can to qualified students.”
In addition to administering the FGP Fellowship, COP provides all Penn Law students with co-curriculum programming focused on developing the professional skills necessary for success in a modern legal environment. Students can carry these skills – such as project management, business development, executive communications, resilience, and techniques for wellness – into any workplace.