Varnum scholarships support deserving future attorneys

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by Cynthia Price
Legal News

The large number of qualified law students needing a “leg up” makes it very difficult to choose just two to receive scholarship awards.

But Jessica Warren and Joshua Garcia are clearly outstanding by any standards.

Out of a field of 16 excellent applicants, Varnum’s selection committee chose those two to receive Diversity and Inclusion scholarships of $4,000 each. (The scholarships are funded by the law firm itself, as part of reaching its Diversity and Inclusion goals.)

“It was a tough choice, a very competitive pool,” said Joy Fossel. “We had stellar writing samples, where they clearly demonstrated their commitment to diversity and inclusion goals in the community. But we’re really pleased with choosing Jessica and Josh.”

Fossel became the firm’s Diversity and Inclusion Partner as of April 1, and has been very active in the 15 years of the initiative’s existence. However, for the process of finding applicants and narrowing down the field to final recipients, Fossel gives the credit to selection committee chair Beth Skaggs.

Skaggs modestly claims, “All I did was set up appointments,” but Fossel praises her hard and smart work.

In addition to encouraging diversity in the legal field and supporting legal students’ desire to make a difference in terms of ethnic and racial diversity in their field, the scholarships – as well as the work of the whole Diversity and Inclusion initiative at Varnum — aim to start the highly-qualified recipients thinking about pursuing their careers in the Grand Rapids area.

“It’s not just that we want them to come back to Varnum, it’s that we want them to practice in West Michigan,” Fossel said. “I think this area’s efforts to include diverse lawyers are second to none.” Noting that it is an “uphill battle” to compete for recent graduates against high salaries in cities like Chicago, New York, Washington DC, Fossel says that efforts may bear fruit in later years as attorneys think about raising a family. “This s a community with a great attraction for people who are settling down with families.”

Skaggs agrees. “We can definitely compete in quality of life and the potential to have a more well-rounded work/life balance,” she adds.

That investment in the future of the Grand Rapids legal community is part of what makes devoting time and effort to finding scholarship winners worthwhile. Another is the ability to make a difference in the lives of law students with high potential.

Skaggs says that half of Varnum’s 2011 selection committee members are drawn from  its Diversity and Inclusion Committee  and half from its Recruitment Committee. Not only these attorneys but also others from the firm conduct the half-day interviews necessary to determine which two deserving applicants will win — a process similar to applying for a position at the firm.

Recipients must be first-year law students. Criteria include a high grade point average, and a lot of emphasis is placed on a written essay applicants must submit. Fossel and Skaggs said that five candidates rose to the top and the interviews began.

Skaggs comments, “Josh and Jessica met all the criteria we look for in a scholarship candidate, including excellent academic records, commitment to the legal profession, and strong interest in promoting diversity both in the field of law and in the broader community around them. Varnum is proud to support highly qualified students like Josh and Jessica as they continue their legal studies.”

Joshua Garcia has started out his legal education at the University of Michigan Law School.

His previous educational path looked like it was leading to a writing career; he received his bachelors in comparative literature and psychology from New York University and his masters from University of Arizona in creative writing. Upon graduation — he was the first person in his family to get an advanced degree — he says the job offers he was getting were teaching composition at community and career colleges. “I wanted to do something a bit harder. I wanted to have a career in something that challenged me.”

His decision brought with it a number of scholarship awards in addition to Varnum’s. He received the very competitive Clarence Darrow scholarship and is one of only 20 students nationally to be chosen for the American Bar Association Legal Opportunity scholarship.

Garcia is from Queens, NY, where he worked with high school students on the VOICES Community  Stories  initiative, and was community outreach manager at New York Cares, the city’s largest volunteer organization.

His mother is from Peru and his father from Guatemala. “I want to be able to give back to them, help the other kids in my family.”

Garcia says he has not yet narrowed down the type of law he may study, not where he intends to practice. Immigration law and policy fascinates him, so he is exploring it. “I’ve seen it split some of my family members apart. It’s a strange and harsh mechanism.”

But at this point, overriding any particular concern is his strong feeling for the value of the law. “Without it where would we be?” he asks.

Michigan State University has shaped the education career of Jessica Warren. She received a bachelors in International Relations from MSU’s James Madison College, and her masters in Communications and Public Relations.

She too has experienced real-world work life, as a staffer for State Rep. Virgil Smith and on his campaign. Warren also founded a non-profit organization, Meatball Kisses Foundation, to encourage young women with children, both to become better mothers and to continue to pursue their dreams. “When I got pregnant I was 19, a sophomore in college, and I thought that my life was over. But I found a lot of strength in myself that I never knew I had. I don’t in any way encourage having children at a young age, but I wanted to help girls who find themselves in that situation. She says that her son, who is about to be four, pulls up a mini-desk and writes lots and lots of words while his mother studies.

She currently plans to specialize in family law, although that is a more open question than she thought it was on entering law school. She also said that, since her family is concentrated in Michigan and Ohio, she would seriously consider practicing in Grand Rapids, echoing Fossel’s observation that “it’s a good place for a family.”

Skaggs says the selection committee will be choosing the winner of its $1500 LSAT preparation scholarship, which has a later deadline, in the near future.

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