Friday, November 29, 2013

A journey through paralegal education

CAREER CHANGE: Nataly Nguyen
tells how she overcame the odds to find
her passion
It takes courage to change the path you’re on in life. But when someone decides to do what they really love, they often become happier, more confident individuals. We see this often in many students who attend Peirce. An example of such a student is Nataly Nguyen, who changed her career path three years ago from biochemistry to paralegal studies. She’s also the winner of the 2013 Thomson Reuters/NFPA Paralegal Student Scholarship. We wanted to share her story with you, in her own words.

Though I had always been interested in the way the legal system works, I didn’t know I would be progressing toward a legal profession until a few years ago. I was studying Biochemistry at Brandeis University and the University at Albany when financial hardships and family troubles disrupted my academic course.

At age 20, I realized that the first thing that I needed to do was to leave the abusive family situation I was in. This meant completely breaking away from my family and our unfortunate cultural and philosophical differences. (I grew up in Switzerland and America, immersed in Western values, while my parents follow a strictly patriarchal Southeastern Asian culture, which offers much less respect and support for women.)

Breaking away was a difficult, but necessary, step with serious consequences. Because my parents held my work documents, I could not obtain employment to support myself. Although my parents offered me no financial support, I was deemed “dependent” under federal student loan guidelines. Because my parents made a comfortable living, I only qualified for an unsubsidized federal student loan.

For two years, I developed meticulous budgeting skills after trying to cover tuition, rent, bills, transportation, and other living costs using roughly $3,000 of student loan funds per semester. During this time, I ate an English muffin every other day and walked a mile each way to the grocery store to save on transportation costs throughout the long Northeastern winters. When my university was late in sending me my student loan refund, I was forced to sublet my apartment. As a result, I migrated between acquaintances’ living rooms and basements for several months with my box of textbooks and small pile of clothes.

At one point, I was fortunate enough to afford housing: a two bedroom apartment shared between three housemates. The apartment was not in very good condition, but this was the least of my worries, for the landlord made spurious deductions to our security deposit at the end of our lease term, and kept most of the $1,200 that should have been returned to us.

It was my experience suing this landlord in small claims court that exposed me to our legal system in a significant way. Though I had always been fascinated by our legal system, I did not find it necessary to participate in it until that housing incident. At age 20, I realized how, without money or support, I was extremely vulnerable to abuse in every transaction I took. I became determined to study law to give a voice to myself and to those around me who might need it in the face of injustice. My interest in the legal field grew as I became more and more fascinated by the pervasive applicability of legal knowledge in every day transactions.

Three years ago, I came to Peirce College in Philadelphia because I was looking for an ABA-approved program in Paralegal Studies in an exciting metropolitan area. At the time, I had completed over three years of undergraduate coursework in biochemistry and worked for roughly two years in scientific research labs. Since I had not previously taken any legal studies classes, I was looking for a school that would help me build a strong foundation of legal knowledge before entering the legal field. When I saw Peirce College’s course offerings, which range from civil litigation to criminal law to legal technology to advanced legal research and writing, I knew that I would become well-prepared for a legal profession once I completed my bachelor’s degree program at Peirce College.

In addition, I enrolled at Peirce because it made financial sense to me. Peirce College stood out as one of only few options in the country where students can affordably take informative and challenging substantive law classes at the undergraduate level, taught by knowledgeable and supportive professors – all of whom have extensive legal practice backgrounds.

I had moved to Philly with some college debt and less than $100 under my name. Peirce College not only offered me financial resources, but its flexible scheduling options also allowed me to work multiple jobs to support myself while attending classes. Needless to say, juggling three restaurant jobs – often 14-hour days, for up to 10 consecutive days, year-round – with classes was a very challenging task, but it was still easier than living through the three previous years, when I did not know how I was going to survive the next day.

Beside Peirce College’s scheduling flexibility for students who work full time, I was also attracted to the small class sizes, the professors’ enthusiastic teaching styles, and the professional support available to students inside and outside of class.

I’ve always been very active in extra curricular activities throughout my academic life, holding leadership positions in student government and local chapters of non-profit organizations. Once I gained more financial stability in Philadelphia, I was able to reduce my working hours to accommodate volunteering in the community. My life struggles inspired me to recently volunteer regularly at public interest law offices, such as Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, where I’ve been able to assist with public benefits cases through supervised, but direct, client contact.

I’ve also joined local paralegal associations. Since I have learned so much in the last few years, I want to use my knowledge and skills to help other paralegal students as Co-President of the Paralegal Student Association, and participate in advancing the paralegal profession as a member of the Philadelphia Association of Paralegals.

SCHOLARSHIP WIN: Nataly poses here with Robert Hrouda,
NFPA President, at the organization's convention 
When I learned that I had been awarded an NFPA/Thomson Reuters Scholarship, I was overcome with a mixture of feelings. I felt a great deal of relief as the suspense that had built up over the last few months suddenly lifted from my shoulders. I felt relieved that I could afford to reduce my work hours a little bit, and focus more attention on what is most important to me right now: my paralegal education, my paralegal internship at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, and my involvement with local paralegal associations. I also felt very excited that all of my hard work over the past few years has helped me achieve this fruitful result.

More importantly, I am deeply grateful to the NFPA and to Thomson Reuters for their generous support of paralegal education. I suspect that given the talented pool of paralegal applicants from across the country, it wasn’t easy to select this winners. As a scholarship recipient, I was given the wonderful opportunity to attend the 2013 NFPA Convention in Hartford, Connecticut, where I was able to observe the NFPA’s Policy Meeting, attend very informative education sessions, and speak to paralegals from many different states.

I am also very grateful for the continued support and encouragement I received from my professors throughout my time at Peirce College. I am especially grateful to Professor Glenn Barnes -- who taught me Civil Litigation, Tort Law, Advanced Legal Writing, and Estate Law -- for writing a very thoughtful letter of recommendation on my behalf, and for his continuing mentorship as my academic advisor at Peirce College. In addition, I would not have found out about the scholarship if it weren’t for the strong network of support provided by the Philadelphia Association of Paralegals.

This was my second time applying to a national scholarship program. The first time was in February, when I applied to the AAfPE's 2013 LEX Scholarship essay competition with a recommendation from Professor Carol Sherman, who is tirelessly involved in promoting legal education both inside and outside of Philadelphia classrooms. As with the NFPA/Thomson Reuters Scholarship, I also submitted grades, references, and an essay that involved substantive legal research, for the LEX Scholarship application. Receiving this award two months later gave me a strong boost of encouragement, which I needed to completely recover from the effects of a very challenging chapter of my life.

When I decided to transition into the legal field from a life sciences program, I must admit that I felt a bit intimidated, with virtually no experience despite my eagerness to learn. As I proceed into the final year of my paralegal program and reflect upon my experience, I realize that words are not enough to describe my gratitude toward each individual and institution that has taken part in supporting my paralegal education at Peirce College. After taking classes in dozens of substantive law topics, analyzing hundreds of cases, and writing nearly 100 CIRAC memoranda, I am glad that I have chosen Peirce College and the Philadelphia community to help me prepare for a productive legal career.