I want to make it clear that this article is not reflective of every single immigrant student’s story here at BC Law. Every experience is different, but I hope that my fellow immigrant first-gen students who read this article might relate to the internal conflict I feel as a student in law school. I also fully believe that one does not have to be an immigrant to relate to the sentiments here. I hope this can help other students feel heard and not alone.
Whether it’s the sentiment of feeling like I don’t quite belong, or the constant internal turmoil concerning my career path, a big portion of my experience as a law student has been shaped by my immigrant identity–and perhaps not in the healthiest way.
My mother works from 9AM to 7PM, 7 days a week in her small beauty supply store in Brooklyn. She moved here over 20 years ago when the “American Dream” was still a prevalent sentiment that encouraged immigrants to move and seek out better lives for their children, notwithstanding the fact that the “American Dream” is mostly a myth for people who are not on equal footing with those who were already born with qualities that are favored in this country. While she worries about affording the next rent payment on the store or ordering enough products to stock her shelves, my worries mostly lie with struggling to understand the Rule of Perpetuities.
To me, that is a very sobering reality. I feel a certain sense of guilt from complaining about having to read a few pages of a casebook while my mother cannot afford to take a day off from the store to see a doctor for her back pain, which is most likely caused by being on her feet all day, lifting heavy boxes and bringing hair products up from the basement. I am deciphering Old English law while my mother must repeat her sentences methodically to her customers because even after being in America for 20 years, her English is still riddled with errors and heavily accented. I am afforded the privilege of pursuing a law degree while my mother gave up her education in Korea to move here in order to see me succeed in a way she never could.
Many immigrant parents want their children to lead successful lives, which contributes to the stereotype of immigrant children pursuing careers as doctors or lawyers. They came here wanting to give their children a better life, which often translates to strict upbringings and “successful” career paths set from the time we were able to walk. Immigrant parents expect their children to make the big bucks, not quite understanding that not all legal jobs pay as handsomely as Biglaw. Therein lies issue #1: I am constantly at a crossroads when it comes to deciding between public interest and Biglaw, the two main routes students pursue.
On some days, my moral propensity to help people like my mother navigate this convoluted legal system outshines my need for financial security. In fact, she is a big reason I want to practice law: to help immigrant families understand the law and be able to utilize it on equal footing as people who inherently have better access to the American legal system.
On other days, I think about how my mother struggles to afford rent for our family and think about what a relief it would be to not be cut off from electricity for not paying the bills in a timely manner. (As an aside, utilities and rent are much easier to figure out when English is your primary language. When I’m not translating the mechanical language of civil procedure, I am often translating the fine print of utilities to my mother and ensuring that she understands what she is paying for.) The job security that Biglaw offers is one that is almost unbeknownst to me; a dream almost like a fantasy to not have to worry about paying things on time, or being stable enough to feel that I earned my place in this country and that I belong here as much as anyone else does. After all, this is why my mother moved us here–so that I wouldn’t have to worry about bills the way she does.
The general culture of law school also fosters a community where students are aiming to be the best of the best. It’s not difficult to fall into the imposter syndrome trap, constantly worrying about the opinions of our peers. That, combined with the average immigrant’s pressure of succeeding, does not bode well for the mental health of many immigrant students, who feel that a legal education is their “golden ticket” of sorts. To lose this manufactured race would mean to lose everything. That is a problem in itself–many immigrant students feel that their best will never be good enough, so they tend to burn themselves out by attempting to outwork everyone, not realizing that they are hurting themselves in the process.
Immigrant parents are hard on their children is because they do not want them to experience the financial struggles that they did, and that is something that weighs on my subconscious everyday. Most immigrant families left their entire lives in their respective countries in order to give their children a chance at a better education. They left behind their friends, families, and perhaps a more stable job and education to work blue-collar jobs in a nation that does not welcome their foreign accents or their different ways of life. It is rather easy to say “don’t go to law school for anyone but yourself” when one does not have the burden of shouldering the sacrifice and the complete lifestyle change a parent has committed to in order to give their child a better life. When I see friends with family members who are already established in America–whether it be as a lawyer or some other white-collar occupation–I find myself a bit envious, because I know they do not have to worry as much about landing on their feet should things go awry, whereas I am constantly worried about whether or not my grades will be good enough to get a job, because I have no safety net to catch me if I fall.
This leads to issue #2: the strange sense of never truly feeling like I belong in the legal profession. The hard truth is that the legal field is oversaturated with white men, and making partner as a woman of color used to be a pipe dream. There are many stereotypes that come with being an Asian woman: we are expected to be meek, quiet, and submissive. In the real world, that often manifests in situations where I am talked over, not taken seriously, and easily skipped over for opportunities that arise. Often, when growing up, immigrants are told to keep their heads down and not cause any waves–to just go with the flow and let bygones be bygones. I often feel that I must overcompensate for being different, by overemphasizing the qualities that make me an immigrant and being overtly proud of my identity. That is to say, it often feels like I am putting my identity on a pedestal so that people will view me as “not just another Asian,” but rather someone who is proud of who she is, and someone who will not be stepped on in a field where being different is often a disadvantage. For me and many fellow immigrants, we have spent far too long underemphasizing our identity, hating ourselves for not being born with the same privileges that a white person has in this country, and we are tired of concealing who we are to make other people feel comfortable.
I recognize that this probably reads like a messy soapbox of an article. The discussion about immigrants’ experiences in law school cannot possibly be encapsulated in a single blog post. But I do hope that by reading this, my fellow students will be able to relate to and learn about the struggles many immigrant students in law school go through. It’s important to me that people recognize that no one law student’s experience is the same, and different people have different motivations for why they are here.
For me, I hope to one day be able to tell my mother that she can finally go back to Korea, where she longs to retire, because her daughter has achieved the “American Dream” that she sacrificed more than 20 years of her life waiting to see.
Seung Hye Yang is a first-year student and new Impact blogger. Contact her at email@example.com.