The Notre Dame Law School student group, First Generation Professionals, was formed in 2020 to address some of the unique issues faced by first-generation students in law school. After only a year and a half, the organization has robust programming, a student board, a faculty advisor, and strong student-to-student and student-to-faculty mentor programs. Now, they are planning to take the First Generation Professionals further with the development of a first-generation alumni mentor program, which will launch later this spring.
Notre Dame Lawyers who identify as first-generation students and lawyers, and who would like to serve as a mentor to a first-generation Notre Dame Law student, can sign up by clicking the button below.
Second-year law student Phenia Hovsepyan is the current president of the First Generation Professionals. An Armenian immigrant, Hovsepyan moved to Los Angeles when she was 9 years old. She is not only the first person in her family to attend law school, but the first person to attend a school of any kind in the United States. Growing up, she became the de facto translator, secretary, and banker for her family.
“I learned to become an advocate at a young age. And the immigrant resilience and resourcefulness has remained within me. I had to figure it all out on my own growing up when it came to my education and planning for my future. I am incredibly grateful to have made it to Notre Dame Law School, where the specific needs of a first-generation law student were recognized,” said Hovsepyan, who joined the group in the fall of 2020 just as she started law school.
“My student mentor was a touchstone for me in all of my worries, anxieties, and questions. He was not only a mentor, but a friend who understood where I was coming from, and why I was so concerned about certain things. The type of candid advice and selfless guidance I received was extraordinary,” said Hovsepyan, who is now a mentor herself, providing that same guidance that she received.
Hovsepyan’s mentor was the first president and co-founder of the First Generation Professionals, William Ringhofer ’21 J.D., who now practices in Chicago as a litigation attorney. Ringhofer also had different experiences than most people he met in law school. Both of Ringhofer’s parents worked in law enforcement, and he worked full-time to get through college. “My resume looked a little different coming into law school. Instead of an internship or working as a law clerk, I had closing shifts at fast food restaurants and overnight maintenance jobs,” he said.
Ringhofer and several other students found they had something in common: they were all the first in their families to take this particular educational path. This group of students all played a role in getting the organization started. Their goal was always to help close the information gap and give first-generation students a fighting chance.
“It’s hard to apply for a position if you don’t know it exists,” said Ringhofer. “A lot of us thought we’d always have to just figure everything out on our own, somehow. This organization changed all of that.”
First-generation students represent a wide variety of experiences. Some are the first American citizens in their families, while others are the first people in their families to graduate from high school or go away to college, and everyone is the first to attend law school.
Ringhofer says there is no one uniform story, but everyone has the same experience of doing something no one in their family had ever done before. “The organization brought us all together. If this group taught me one thing, it’s that the American dream is alive and well,” said Ringhofer. “And becoming an alumni mentor is the best way to help further that dream for the next era of attorneys.”
Several first-year students concur. Matthew Staugaard says that he has benefited from group programming and his student and faculty mentorship, receiving advice on journals, job searches, and how to network. “Hearing the experiences and stories from the first-generation faculty especially has made me feel more comfortable in my skin,” said Staugaard.
Sebastian Ramirez is the son of immigrants and first in his family to go to law school. He said the First Generation Professionals group has helped him get the lay of the land, with such details from optimum studying pace and exam prep, to understanding the fundamentals of the profession.
Brooke Pridham, the first in her family to graduate from college or attend professional school, said the first few weeks of law school were overwhelming. She had this feeling that she was behind and that everyone knew something that she didn’t know. “The First Generation Professionals organization was comforting because it reminded me that I was not alone, that my feelings were completely valid. It connected me with other students and professors that could help me navigate law school,” she said.
Pridham said her favorite programming this year was the talk Joseph A. Matson Dean and Professor of Law G. Marcus Cole gave to students in October 2021. “It was amazing to hear his story and experiences as a first-generation student and lawyer,” she said.
One of Hovsepyan’s initiatives as president of the group has been to expand the successful mentoring program to now include alumni mentors.
“Having someone who understands what it means to be a first-generation student, who can offer you the guidance that they themselves did not have is a critical element of success for me,” she said.
Hovsepyan hopes to make those same experiences and resources available to all the students of the Notre Dame Law School First Generation Professionals. Ramirez applauds this initiative. He feels that alumni mentors can provide value by helping students navigate a career and demonstrate how that trajectory really works and plays out in real life.
Ringhofer added, “An alumni mentor can look at someone in the same position they were in just a few years ago and tell them everything they wish someone would have told them.”
The faculty advisor for the First Generation Professionals group is Professor Julian Velasco. Both of Velasco’s parents were immigrants and could not provide any help at all in navigating the difficult waters. His family had no acquaintances who were professionals. He says students without a history of professionals in their family, in a very real sense, are alone because they often don’t have anyone to help them and may not even know what they are doing. They may tend to question themselves and wonder whether they can really make it.
Velasco sees a significant benefit and opportunity for alumni to be mentors.
“In high school, I was lucky to have the professional father of one of my friends befriend me. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was a mentor to me. Without him, the path would have been significantly more difficult,” Velasco said. “An alumni mentor can make a big difference in any student’s life, but the difference can be truly profound for students who are first-generation professionals.”
At the Notre Dame Law Association’s meeting in the fall of 2017, then-president of the NDLA Board Jim Carr ’87 J.D. established a diversity-and-inclusion committee, which paved the way for the First Generation Professionals student group to be formed in 2020.
Carr, the chair of Kelley Drye & Warren in New York, is a first-generation lawyer himself.
“Not only am I the first person in my family to graduate from law school, but I am also the first person in my family to graduate from college. In fact, my parents did not graduate from high school,” Carr said.
“First-generation law students are at a significant disadvantage in navigating law school as compared to students who come from a family with a member who is a lawyer. I had no idea what to expect in law school, no idea how to prepare for class or for finals, how to establish connections, why networking is important, and the different types of jobs available to graduating law students,” he said. “I was in a perpetual state of shock for most of my first year. The First Generation Professionals student group will have a liaison on the NDLA Board who can help this group of law students navigate these difficult issues so that they can feel confident as law students to allow them to achieve success as a law student and, ultimately, in the legal profession.”
Be a First-Generation Mentor
Notre Dame Lawyers who identify as first-generation graduates and who would like to serve as a mentor to a first-generation Notre Dame Law student can sign up by clicking the button below.
More information will be shared with mentors after they sign up. The frequency and format of the mentor-mentee relationship is up to the discretion of each mentor pair. Alumni mentors can serve as coach, advocate, and role model for their mentee. The overall goal of the mentor program is to provide guidance for students’ personal and professional development and goals. The hope is that mentors will share their personal stories and experiences, as well as challenge students to think more critically and boost their self-esteem.