By Sarah Kellogg
OPERATING A LAW SCHOOL WHERE STUDENTS OF ALL BACKGROUNDS and circumstances are fully represented requires more than a fair-weather commitment. Such a standard must be woven throughout a law school’s mission and culture – and, importantly, it’s financial aid programs.
GW Law has demonstrated that commitment often and profoundly by building a record of comprehensive and lasting financial support for its students, who come to the law school with different educational backgrounds, financial needs, life experiences, and family circumstances.
The drive for sustained and comprehensive financial aid offerings has come from the top, with GW Law Dean and Harold H. Greene Professor of Law Dayna Bowen Matthew making growing and diversifying the law school’s financial aid opportunities a central focus of her tenure. “We must reduce the cost of law school attendance to continue attracting the best and brightest students to GW Law,” says Matthew.
Historically, the Law School has provided substantive institutional financial aid to a wide range of students, including those who receive merit-based scholarships and need-based grants and loans. This academic year, 81.4 percent of JD students at GW have been rewarded financial aid through the law school, with 1,244 students receiving merit scholarships and 176 students receiving need-based grants. Scholarships are funded, in part, through generous alumni donations, which support the next generations of GW Law students.
“These are extraordinary students who might not be able to attend GW Law or who might choose another school without our scholarships,” the dean says. “We hope our many scholarships give students the freedom to pursue any specialty, including public interest law, because they won’t have to worry as much about debt.”
Increasing access to a quality legal education for all students, regardless of financial resources, has long been a priority at GW Law. “We select our scholarship recipients for their high potential because GW Law is a national leader at identifying the competencies that make great lawyers,” Matthew says. “We are able to consider both quantitative and qualitative predictors of success because professional identity formation has been a bedrock of our curriculum for the past decade through our award-winning Inns of Court and innovative Fundamentals of Lawyering programs.”
"We hope our many scholarships give students the freedom to pursue any specialty, including public interest law, because they won’t have to worry as much about debt."
Dayna Bowen Matthew
GW Law Dean and Harold H. Greene Professor of Law
Moreover, GW Law is committed to building a community where all forms of diversity thrive. “It is essential we have the voices of many students from varied backgrounds represented here at GW Law,” says Matthew. “This is our opportunity to open doors to the legal profession and prepare the next generation of leaders for a pluralist, global society.”
This past year, GW Law has invested heavily in that principle. Matthew launched the Open Doors Scholarships to enable outstanding students with high potential and significant financial need to attend law school. The first 10 student scholars began classes in September 2022. For those students, most of them first-generation college students, the scholarship, $120,000 for full-time students, is foundational in setting their courses in law school and, quite possibly, their careers.
The group is excelling academically and on the job market. The inaugural cohort of Open Doors scholars has secured summer jobs, high grades, and leadership positions throughout the law school. “The outcomes have been terrific,” says Matthew. “We are making a historic difference by investing in the next generation of problem solvers and change-makers who will lead our world.”
Another way that GW Law provides financial support to exceptional students is through merit scholarships. The law school’s pioneering Presidential Merit Scholarship program enrolls some of the nation’s highest achieving JD applicants who earn full-tuition scholarships through a binding and rigorous selection process. Presidential Merit Scholars serve as leaders in the GW Law community and beyond, contributing to the profession in diverse and inspiring ways.
“Merit scholarships pave the way for high-performing students to choose GW Law over other top law schools so they can get the unique, DC- infused education that only GW provides,” Matthew says.
Presidential Merit Scholar Kailey McNeal
Like many law school students, Kailey McNeal was drawn, in part, to GW Law because she was interested in public policy and government and wanted to be in Washington, DC, the epicenter of public policy in the United States.
“I knew it would be good for me to be in DC. It felt like the right place to be for my career,” says McNeal. “And I was drawn to GW Law specifically because of the strong externship program. I was really excited about having hands-on learning opportunities.”
A Dallas, Texas, native, McNeal attended Pitzer College in California. Graduating with honors and a bachelor’s in political studies, McNeal decided that a JD would be a great way to pursue her interest in social justice, animal welfare, and racial justice. But the cost of law school was a hurdle for her.
“I was still on the fence about going to GW,” says McNeal. “As a bi-racial Black woman, who is really interested in public interest law, I want to use my law degree to empower other people and to uplift voices in my community. If I was going to do that, I needed to be conscious about where to go to law school and how to deal with the financial pressures so I would have the freedom to choose my career direction.”
The announcement she was receiving a full-tuition Presidential Merit Scholarship put any hesitations to rest, and McNeal chose GW Law. Yet, as remarkable as her grades and test scores were, she still felt ill at ease at times because she didn’t have a lot of touch points in the law to explain the ins and outs of law school. To ease that feeling, she found helpful professors and the support of good friends.
“I found a great community in the Black Law Students Association,” she says. “Being a Black student in law school can be alienating at times. It’s not a GW-specific thing. It’s that the legal profession doesn’t have a lot of Black attorneys in it. It’s helpful to have a real community.”
While her passion remains at the intersection of animal protection and racial justice, she’s also developed an interest in criminal law while in law school. She’s had an internship at the U.S. Department of Justice, and she plans to participate in the appellate criminal defense clinic. “My experience lends itself nicely to criminal law,” says McNeal, “because so many of the issues in criminal law are related to racial justice."
Open Doors Scholar Cindy Huang
The urge to give back was a frequent motivator for Cindy Huang, as she advanced steadily through public schools in her native Taiwan, eventually riding her excellent grades and test scores to attend National Taiwan University to obtain a Bachelor of Laws.
Growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Taipei, Huang watched as legal problems were visited upon her family’s friends and neighbors. “They didn’t even know how to hire an attorney, and if they had, they didn’t have the economic resources to hire someone,” says Huang. “There were a lot of injustices.”
Today, Huang is using that motivation to give back to succeed as an Open Doors Scholar at GW Law. She is studying international trade law and looking for a way to leverage her interest in international trade to benefit communities like her own and others.
“After I graduated from college, I worked for a U.S. law firm in its Hong Kong office. I realized I wanted to work on trade issues and cross-border transactions,” says Huang, who is clerking at the Delaware Court of Chancery this summer. “I saw the law firm’s dedication to its clients, but also to giving back on a larger scale—making sure there are vaccines available to everyone and supporting renewable energy that is friendlier to the environment. It was exciting to do something positive for society.”
As a first-generation college student, Huang knew that she couldn’t count on her parents and other relatives to help her determine where to head next in her academic career. “I had to rely on myself because my parents couldn’t give me any guidance, so it’s been more difficult. But I’ve also been able to meet a lot of people who have been willing to help me and share tips.”
Huang, who has a passion for languages, says most first-generation students have a knack for finding solutions to difficulties, and they tend to be proactive in their problem solving and willingness to ask for help. She says her fellow Open Door Scholars have given her a “sense of belonging” despite the fact she didn’t know anyone when she came to the United States for the first time to attend GW Law. “I am so lucky to be an Open Doors Scholar because I know I wouldn’t be here without it.”
Merit Scholar David Liss
GW Law third year student David Liss has an unlikely background for a new attorney who wants to practice cutting-edge cybersecurity law. He worked as an archaeology intern in Rome, and he has a passion for Roman history and the classics, and a deep familiarity with Latin.
Eventually, though, a life in the law seemed eminently more practical. Today, archaeology has become a prized hobby, and Liss is focused on taking the bar this summer and clerking for a judge in DC Superior Court. “I had to look at my career realistically,” says Liss. “Cybersecurity is a newer and vastly growing field, with developing law. The ability to become an expert in a rapidly developing area really appealed to me.”
A native of Columbus, Ga., Liss was excited to come to Washington, DC, because he’s spent most of his life living in a small town. Even his college, the University of Georgia, was located in Athens, another small town. While he had scholarships to stay in Georgia for law school, the thought of coming to Washington was too enticing.
“I was given an excellent scholarship to come to GW, and that really made it possible,” says Liss. “GW was a very enticing opportunity, because I would actually get to live in not only a big city, but really one of the most important cities in the world. It has everything under the sun.”
Before he came to GW Law, he had one more detour to take. Graduating from college, he deferred acceptance to GW Law for a year so he could spend time in Northern Italy teaching English to students in Berlingo, which is 40 miles from Milan. But that opportunity was cut short by the pandemic, and he was forced to skip his final semester there. As he says now, “the world turned upside down.”
Liss says GW Law’s merit scholarship helped him to gain more real-life experience in the law. Without the financial burden shackling him to part-time jobs, he was able to apply for different externships, working at the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, among many. “I ended up being able to really experience the law before I even left law school,’ says Liss, who says his ultimate goal right now is to become a federal prosecutor. “The scholarship has made all the difference.”
Open Doors Scholar Zeba “Raisa” Shah
The life of Zeba "Raisa" Shah has a cinematic quality to it. Growing up in New Mexico and California, her parents worked in fast food restaurants and health care facilities to support their family. After high school, she became the first person in her family to attend college. In her last semester at the University of Pennsylvania, she took an internship in Washington that led to her serving as an executive assistant for three years with the U.S. Senate Leader, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York.
“It truly feels like a dream,” says Shah. “It was an incredible experience. It made it hard to choose between me continuing to work in the Senate or going to law school. But I didn’t want to have regrets later in life for not trying to open as many doors as possible and giving myself the opportunity to be able to do whatever I wanted to do.”
But her interest in law school alone wasn’t a guarantee it would happen. Her parents had always hoped she would become a doctor, and they worried how she was going to afford such a financial investment. “Immigrant parents are going to be a little bit more risk averse,” she notes. “Getting the scholarship really helped reassure them because they knew that I was going to be taken care of.”
Shah says her commitment to learning is the result of her father’s long road to his own undergraduate degree. She graduated in May 2019 with a bachelor’s degree, and her father earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing that December after years of taking classes part-time. “My dad’s a big part of why I was not afraid to pursue higher education. He’s an example of it never being too late to change your life trajectory and change your career trajectory,” she says.
Being a first-generation law student also comes with advantages, a sort of resiliency that allows students to seek help or ask questions that others may avoid. “I genuinely believe that first-time students are so much more resourceful because we weren’t born with the same advantages,” says Shah. “We know how to speak out and take a lot more initiative because we always have to go out of our way to seek out these resources that other students don’t have to. We’re always trying to break the knowledge gap and catch up with our peers.”
Shah says the programming for Open Doors Scholars acknowledges that the problem for first-generation college students isn’t money alone. Too many universities give scholarships, and then leave students to fend for themselves without the supports that level the playing field, she says. “Money opens the door,” says Shah. “It literally allows us to come, but it’s easy to get lost in this space where a lot of our peers have parents who are lawyers or who have professional backgrounds and institutional knowledge. Without the community of people in a similar space, I would argue it would be really, really daunting to be here.”
Open Doors Scholar Devin Woodson
Growing up in Maryland, Devin Woodson knew the District of Columbia-Maryland-Virginia (DMV) metropolitan region pretty well, so when he decided he wanted to go to law school, there was only one school for him, GW Law.
“I knew I wanted to go to law school as soon as I set foot in undergrad, because I wanted to be able to make a difference,” says Woodson. “But how I was going to get to law school was one challenge, and how I was going to get to GW Law, I knew that would be an even bigger challenge.”
Enter the Open Doors Scholarship, which turned out to address both challenges. Woodson remembers getting word of the scholarship and knowing that his dream for a GW Law degree was one step closer. “I remember getting an email that was like, ‘Congratulations, you got a scholarship,’ and I was on the Metro,” he says. “I called my dad and I was like, ‘I haven’t read the whole letter, but I think we just hit the lottery, dad.’”
Raised by William Woodson, he watched his dad work two jobs and raise a child while going to school at night. “He always encouraged me to go to college,” says Woodson. “He was like every parent; he wanted my life to be better than his. It was something he really wanted for me because he hadn’t had that opportunity. He’s my hero.”
As he considers his future, Woodson is thinking international corporate law. He is drawn to the idea of helping write international treaties between countries and finding opportunities for people to come together in such a divisive time.
Woodson says the Open Doors scholarship group has become more than colleagues, they’re friends. Most of the Open Doors Scholars are first-generation college students, and it can be very lonely immersing yourself in a profession that is not even on the horizon for most of their families.
“We’re trying to figure out law school together, and when you find your community, it makes it so much more comfortable. And I’m happy to have the Open Doors Scholars as my community.”
A Community of Support
GW Law understood that all these impressive scholars were relieved of the financial burden with their scholarships, but that they would need the broader support of the GW Law community to thrive in law school because many of them were first-generation law students.
That community came to life, in part, in August 2022 with the launch of the highly regarded Footnotes Pre-Orientation program for 1L students, which offered both first-generation and other students the chance to “learn the ropes” of law school in a low-key setting. The program, which occurred in the two days prior to freshman orientation, drew 177 students.
“The two days of programming before the actual orientation started were so helpful,” says Shaw, noting there were a lot of first-generation students like herself in the group. “Creating a cohort of people who understand us has been really, really important, and I appreciate the law school finding another way for us to make connections.”
The program, under the leadership of Associate Dean for Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Carmia N. Caesar, recognizes the reality that law school isn’t like other higher education experiences where students regularly turn in papers and take tests, receiving feedback nearly weekly from professors and teachers. The pressure to learn an inordinate amount of material in a short period—and have little feedback other than a mid-term and final—can be overwhelming. Footnotes gives students a heads-up about how law school works and where to seek support.
“I feel like the program took a lot of the edge off because I hadn’t ever been to a law school before or known a lawyer,” says Alexander Dorsey-Tarpley, a Footnotes and Open Doors scholar. “I did experience a lot of imposter syndrome at first, and I still feel it occasionally now, but I think the Footnotes program helped me conquer some of it. I haven’t felt as alone because I had people I could talk with. I had a community.”
Matthew believes GW Law and other law schools must be committed to turning a legal education into an opportunity to advance the next generation of law scholars and practitioners. “An education in the law is life-changing, and we try to give our students the resources they need to turn their talents and dreams into fulfilling careers,” says Matthew. “Through their lives, they will contribute to our society in very real and important ways we can’t even imagine today.”