Going the distance: Champion distance swimmer aims for a career in civil rights and Constitutional Law

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Photos courtesy of Yvonne Tirakian

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Yvonne Tirakian wanted a career that would impact people’s lives for the better. Originally a pre-med student in undergrad at Wayne State University, she changed her major to sociology at the end of her freshman year, and graduated with honors. She was also accepted into the Wayne Law “LawStart” 3+3 program, a competitive program that allows two students from Wayne State University to begin their legal studies at Wayne Law during their fourth year of undergrad. So, she received her BA in 2020 and simultaneously completed her first year of law school.

“As I delved deeper into sociological theory and research, I realized the societal problems we face are largely influenced by the legal atmosphere—and realized I could do more for others and make greater systemic changes by pursuing a career in law,” she says. “That’s what brought me to where I am today, and I’m so glad I made that decision.”

She is now a 2L student at Wayne Law, which she describes as a unique place.

“It’s a tightly-knit community where everyone knows everyone—in many ways, it’s like a small town,” she says. “Upperclassmen are always happy to help first-year students. The professors are caring and love what they do. The student body is filled with individuals from different backgrounds. I learn something new from each of my classmates every day.

“My favorite part is the emphasis placed on public interest practice. Wayne Law places tremendous value in community service and leadership, which aligns closely with my own values.”

Her particular passion is constitutional law, protecting and expanding civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution, especially for marginalized individuals. She would eventually like to get an LLM in the subject, and perhaps even pursue a career in legal academia in that area.

She is especially interested in constitutional torts, personal injury claims based on a violation of a person’s constitutional rights. She has worked on constitutional torts against government officials using the federal statute 42 USC 1983.

“There are massive ‘access to justice’ gaps that have resulted from years of discriminatory practices,” she says. “I feel the U.S. Constitution is a weapon that can be used to be the voice of the voiceless.”

Tirakian is a teaching assistant to Distinguished Professor of Law Robert Sedler, a world-renowned expert in Constitutional Law, helping facilitate his 1L Constitutional Law I class.

“I admire Professor Sedler in so many ways, and I’m constantly learning from him,” she says. “I assist students in studying, coping with the transition to law school, and even act as a mentor.
Constitutional law is my all-time favorite area of law, so working for someone who litigated before the U.S. Supreme Court and taught law for 60 years is a dream come true. I’m honored that he chose me to be his teaching assistant.

While her long-term dream is to practice for the ACLU, Tirakian’s current goals are not as specific.

“I genuinely want to make meaningful change in our world, whether limited to the City of Detroit or expanded to change our nation,” she says. “By meaningful change, I mean increasing access to justice, ameliorating social inequalities, and protecting our most vulnerable populations. Every day, we see individuals suffering from human and civil rights violations. While recognizing the issues in our nation is important, it is most important to step up and do something about them. I believe that the Constitution is an excellent tool for fighting for change.

“I was raised in a household that values hard work, integrity, and dedication. I was also taught to recognize my own privilege, understand there are some things I can’t and will not experience, and use that knowledge to be kind, caring, compassionate, and do right by others, especially those in need.”

Tirakian is the social media coordinator for the Wayne Law chapter of If/When/How, a national organization dedicated to training and educating lawyers to become effective advocates for reproductive justice. “The organization is dedicated to creating a legal community that works to preserve and even expand the rights to create, maintain, and sustain a family, if, when, and how an individual chooses to.”

The organization recently hosted a national event where medical sociologist Dr. Janet Hankin presented her research on infant mortality rates in the City of Detroit. Hankin is on a task force finding workable solutions to combat the systemic issues contributing to this problem—including, but not limited to, poverty, racial discrimination, inadequate housing, and lack of continuity of care during the maternity period.

“Her research showed Detroit’s infant mortality rate is almost three times higher than the rest of the United States, which is huge, considering the U.S. has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world when compared to other well-developed nations,” Tirakian says.

A student attorney for the Elder Law Advocacy Center in Redford, Tirakian finds it rewarding to solve legal problems for the elderly. In this role, her responsibilities include calling clients, doing legal research, assisting in filling out forms, and helping to prepare documents to be filed in court. The matters include, but are not limited to settling contract disputes, fraud, and even helping to probate estates. While the work is entirely remote, being able to interact with clients via telephone may be the most rewarding part of the job.

 “I get to speak with the individuals I’m helping to represent and get to know them,” she says.” I get to be a sort of support system for them, since legal and problems are very stressful.

“Many of my clients have been taken advantage of, live alone, or have disabilities,” she says. “Our elderly population is important, and it’s astonishing to see how poorly they are treated at times.

Elder abuse is real, and it’s important to stand up for these individuals.”

She enjoys representing the student body in her role as a 2L Governor, as well as interviewing potential faculty candidates and providing feedback.

As an article editor for the Wayne Law Journal of Law in Society, she has been exposed to compelling and interesting legal scholarship. Her favorite part is writing her own article that focuses on reparations for African-American slave descendants.

“Specifically, the benefits and implications of the adoption of H.R. 40, a bill that would, if passed, establish a federal commission to study and develop plans to impose reparations. It’s a very exciting topic, and I’m enjoying the process,” she says.

Earlier this year, Yvonne clerked for Excolo Law, a litigation firm in Southfield, where she drafted complaints and motions in the area of constitutional torts, and assisted in drafting complaints related to prisoner civil rights and constitutional violations by law enforcement, which were filed in federal court.

Tirakian didn’t find it too difficult to switch to online learning during the pandemic.

“From kindergarten to college, I did my homework at the kitchen table, and that didn’t change much when I got to law school, so the studying aspect hasn’t been too hard on me,” she says. “That said, the act of physically going to an office or a classroom makes it easier to create a structured schedule. Now that everything is done remotely, I rely on a planner to organize my days. My remote work with FLAC, class sessions with Professor Sedler, and the rest of my courses provided a framework for me to develop a study and sleep schedule.”

A native of Algonac in St. Clair County, Tirakian now makes her home in the Motor City.

“My hometown is very small and rural. I loved growing up there, although I craved diversity and culture. So, when I came to Wayne State in 2016 to begin my undergraduate studies, I had a hard time adjusting. Now, I’ve lived in midtown for about five years and I like it a great deal,” she says.

“Detroit is filled with lots of open-minded people and the cultural diversity at Wayne State is phenomenal. I think the history of Detroit is often misunderstood or overlooked. To me, it’s a hidden gem.
This city drove—both literally and figuratively—the growth of the United States. Once you know the deeper history of the city, you gain an appreciation for what it is and what it stands for.”

In her leisure time, Tirakian is a big fan of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and has seen them live in concert twice.

“I also really enjoy plants—and my sister would tell you our apartment is far too cluttered because of that,” she says. “I’m a huge Saturday Night Live fan. And I try to spend as much time with my family and our adorable dog, Inga, a 7-year-old Rottweiler.”

Swimming has long been a passion, and in undergrad she was a 3-time national medalist with the Michigan Masters and Grosse Pointe Gators Masters.

While law school studies have somewhat curtailed her swimming, she notes that when she is in the water, it clears her mind. She also enjoys teaching swimming lessons, coaching, and teaching water aerobics classes when the opportunity arises.

“I’ve loved the sport since I was about 8, mainly because it doesn’t require me to make any difficult decisions. When my coaches write a workout, I just follow it and give it my all. I get to put my energy into something I like, and I can sort of go on autopilot—no thinking, just focusing on the next set,” she says.

“I hate slacking, so I’ve always been labeled the ‘work horse’ of my group, even if I’m the slowest one in the lane. Whether you’re alone or with a team, it’s important to be able to start and finish a task, no matter how difficult.” This also carries over into my academic life. My drive carries over into the classroom and my work in the legal – always give your best, always push yourself, and always do what is right, even if it is unpopular.”



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