Making Waves Foundation's College and Alumni Program's Executive Director Melissa Fries (left) and NYU Law Student and Wave-Maker Natan S. (right)

Student Perspectives in College Success: From First-Generation College Graduate to Law School During a Pandemic

by Making Waves Foundation

Making Waves alumnus Natan S. shares what it’s like studying law and developing his career during a pandemic

Natan S. has been a part of the Making Waves community for more than a decade. He was a part of the ‘4th Wave’ of students in San Francisco who participated in the former Making Waves Education Program, which has now grown into Making Waves Academy, a public charter school, and Making Waves Fou
ndation, a non-profit with a college success program, known as CAP, that advances educational equity and supporting students to and through college.

With coaching and financial support from Making Waves’ College and Alumni Program, or CAP, Natan became a first-generation college graduate after earning his undergraduate degree from Claremont McKenna College. One of more than 500 Making Waves Foundation alumni, he is now on his way to becoming a lawyer as a student at one of the world’s top places to study law, New York University (NYU).

According to a U.S. News and World Report article, “lawyers are more needed than ever… America’s triple crises of illness, economic downturn and racial injustice have exposed structural problems requiring legal solutions… The global scope of the pandemic has also revealed the dangers inherent in an increasingly complex and multilayered world. There is plenty to keep lawyers busy, even if the pandemic amplified trends toward remote work, contract hiring and automation to reduce costs.”

Natan recently shared a (remote) day-in-the-life of studying law and completing an externship in New York City for our new Wave-Maker Network on Instagram. In this month’s College Success Institute Q&A hosted by Melissa Fries, executive director of the College and Alumni Program, Natan shares more about his journey to law school and his navigating the challenges of attending graduate school and developing his future career during a global pandemic. 

Melissa: Tell us a bit about your background and what led you to law school at New York University (NYU)?

Natan: From a young age, I have always been interested in law and policy. Throughout high school, I took on different positions in student government and internships that I thought would set me up for success. These experiences were helpful, particularly when I was applying to colleges.

I ultimately ended up attending Claremont McKenna College, a liberal arts college in southern California with a strong government program. I dual majored in Philosophy and Legal Studies and wrote an international law thesis about the Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict. My time at Claremont McKenna College gave me robust exposure to legal topics that confirmed my interest in attending law school.

Today, I am third-year law student, known as 3L, at NYU Law, where I’ve had an incredible time learning about issues ranging from affordable housing and land-use to global corruption. I’ve met an incredible community, particularly among the Black students at NYU through our student group BALSA. I’m currently doing an externship at the Treasury Department in the Office of General Counsel for international affairs. I’m looking forward to graduating in May.

Melissa: Were there any challenges along the way?

Natan: One challenge I experienced along the way was figuring out how to navigate career opportunities in law. After graduating with my undergraduate degree, my first job fell through before it even started. I then worked in a local non-profit doing youth advocacy before moving to a national organization where I eventually worked as a policy advisor and started to develop expertise on different issues.

The other big challenge for me on the road to law school was navigating the application process which can be long, expensive, and isolating. As an immigrant and first-generation college graduate my immediate network did not have many people who had gone to law school or wanted to. As a result, I had to figure much of the process out on my own – including studying for the LSAT, registering for all relevant accounts, applying in a timely manner, securing letters of recommendation from professors, among other steps that require discipline and attention to details. Unlike when I was applying to college, I was the only person I knew applying to law school at the time.

All this to say, even though the process may feel daunting and tedious, many people feel that way, which should be comforting.

Melissa: Given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, how has your experience in law school differed from what you imagined? How have some experiences met your expectations?

Natan: The pandemic has had an extreme impact on my time as a law student. However, before explaining how, I will admit that I was incredibly fortunate that my family and I remained healthy throughout the pandemic, and I was able to progress in my degree without delay. I feel more fortunate than many others who faced a real loss.

With that being said, I found that learning during a pandemic was challenging because it took away many of the informal learning moments that I enjoyed so much during my first year. For example, I miss bumping into a friend after class and discussing lingering questions from class or finding out that a renowned expert is delivering a lecture in the 40 minutes between classes – often with free lunch.

In a way, everything felt more scheduled and rigid. Despite that, my professors all did their best to present engaging and interactive classes in a remote environment.

Melissa: Has the current environment influenced your ability to obtain career development or internship opportunities?

Natan: The remote environment made it more challenging but not impossible to find a job. Because of the pandemic and the uncertainties in the economic market, law firms delayed the recruiting cycle by a semester, many firms reduced the number of law students they were hiring, and there was looming uncertainty about what law firms were looking for in candidates. For those interested in public interest work, particularly in government, many cities implemented a hiring freeze.

In my case, I’ll be going to work at a law firm in New York. Considering the challenges, I am grateful and relieved to have secured a job for when I graduate in May.

Melissa: How have your experiences with Making Waves, from when you were only 10 years old to now, helped shape your journey and made a difference in your education experiences and career development?

Natan: Making Waves has played a large role in my success. From the time I was a ten-year-old kid who was leaning back in my chair during my interview with you, Ms. Fries, to now, I have come a long way.

Making Waves has made substantial contributions to my education, provided me with tutoring and hands-on support throughout high school, and offered academic and coaching services and mentorship during college, all of which helped refine my skills, expose me to new opportunities, and provide me with the resources to excel.

This is part of Making Waves Foundation’s College Success Institute Q&A series, which shares best practices and strategies that help increase the college graduation rate of low-income and first-generation students. The opinions expressed in this article series are those of the featured contributors.