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When I was a teenager, I volunteered at an orphanage in Honduras to help build a new school for the children. I still have pictures of five-year-olds climbing over me as we all collapse to the ground in laughter.
I knew from a young age that I wanted to be an advocate for those who are marginalized or forgotten, and through this experience, I felt strongly that I had found my calling. I entered law school with the intention of working in international adoption law to help secure homes for orphans like those in Honduras. However, a legal education has a tendency to derail one's plans in the best possible way. Through my classes and numerous internships and externships during law school, particularly in the Family Violence Litigation Clinic and Immigration Project (FVLC&IP), I developed a passion and dedication for a particularly vulnerable population—immigrants. In my three years as a law student, I heard compelling stories of why immigrants choose to leave their home country and try to make a better life for themselves in our country. I also heard about how immigrants' expectations of our country were shattered as they faced numerous adversities in our legal system and society merely because of the coincidence of their birthplace. By the time I graduated from law school, I knew that I wanted to work as a legal services immigration attorney, providing pro bono legal services that could help to change the life course for those I was able to help.
“I am ever as sure that providing legal services to immigrants fleeing from desperate situations and seeking to improve their lives is the career track I wish to pursue.”
However, I had already accepted a valued and prestigious clerkship at the New York Court of Appeals, and I was very excited to have this opportunity as my first legal job. Working as a Staff Attorney at the New York Court of Appeals during my first year as a practicing attorney was a challenging and rewarding experience. But even from the start, I felt there was a dissonance between the work I was doing and what I felt was my calling as an attorney. While my colleagues enjoyed being exposed to so many areas of the law, I missed working one on one with clients and seeing the direct, positive impact my work was making in the community. While I gained a lot from my experiences at the Court of Appeals, it became clear to me that I needed to change my career focus to something more in line with my personal ideals and goals as a lawyer.
So when I heard about the new Immigration Law Clinic (ILC) developed by Professor Sarah Rogerson, I knew I had to apply for the Clinical Fellowship position. I had worked with Sarah for a year during my time in the FVLC&IP, and I knew she was a phenomenal clinical professor and attorney. But more importantly, I knew that, as the Clinical Fellow, my work would be more focused on an area of law that I felt passionately about and I would have the opportunity to see the difference I was making in my clients' lives. For example, shortly after my tenure as the Fellow began, we received the Lawful Permanent Residence cards (colloquially, green cards) for a boy and a girl for whom I had begun representation as a clinic student. The girl, who was normally shy and soft-spoken, was smiling from ear to ear. When I drove home that day, I could see her face in my mind, and I felt grateful that even when the grind of my job starts to wear on me, I am in a position where I encounter consistent, powerful reminders that my work is making someone else's life better.
After working in the ILC for several months now, I am ever as sure that providing legal services to immigrants fleeing from desperate situations and seeking to improve their lives is the career track I wish to pursue. As only a second-year attorney, I am still working to discover exactly what I hope my career track will entail. I hope to eventually have the opportunity to work on large-scale advocacy projects directed at creating systemic change that would lead to fairer treatment of immigrants and enforcement of immigration laws.
Read about Mary Armistead ’14 and many more distinguished graduates in the Summer 2016 issue of AlbanyLaw Magazine.