Michelle Rodriguez L’24, MBE’24 never expected to go to law school – she only dreamed of it.
When she tells her story, Rodriguez begins by explaining that she embodies a multitude of intersecting identities and holds several seemingly disparate but ultimately cohesive interests. Rodriguez grew up in California, just north of Los Angeles. A triplet and one of five total siblings, she truly began to connect with her Latin heritage in earnest as a young adult.
The inescapable pull of justice
Though she considered entering the University of California, San Diego as a Philosophy major, Rodriguez was bothered by the idea that theorizing morality would not satisfy her desire to help people. Instead, she declared a major in Neuroscience. To Rodriguez, whose family has experienced a number of medical obstacles, becoming a doctor seemed like a practical choice.
“My family had always struggled with medical problems and access to healthcare, even before my mom had a really major accident. Financially, it was difficult,” Rodriguez explained. “Before that, my grandma had breast cancer, and my siblings and I helped her. It seemed like studying medicine would cure my family’s issues.”
Nonetheless, as an undergraduate, Rodriguez continued to gravitate toward the humanities, attracted by the ways in which they allowed her to explore deeply conceptual questions about morality and justice. In the end, she crafted her own major: she graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience and a Bachelor of Arts in Modern Western Humanities.
“What I really love about these Russian and German novels that I was reading is how they really delve into the ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ I wanted to find a way to cognize and form my own opinions about what is true. I wanted to understand the world better,” Rodriguez said.
After graduation, Rodriguez lived abroad in Berlin. While there, as a daughter of an asylum seeker herself, Rodriguez “naturally gravitated” toward asylum seekers and people living with refugee status. When she learned that they were struggling to access basic healthcare, housing, and other social needs, she wanted to help them, and the best way she could think to do so involved a law degree.
Rodriguez saw an opportunity to merge her interests in medicine and humanities through the practice of law, but because she didn’t know much about law school, the idea seemed highly impractical. It was just a dream.
Despite this trepidation, “law school seemed like the best choice and the only choice there was,” Rodriguez said. “It just seemed like, if I really wanted to cause change, then I had to go for it. It felt very urgent. I didn’t care if the world was against me or if it wasn’t practical or if my family didn’t want it. I had to go.”
First General Professionals support system
Rodriguez credits her girlfriend and her girlfriend’s mother – a lawyer—for helping her to believe that attending law school was a real possibility. Still, finding a supportive community within the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School was essential; Rodriguez thrives under mentorship and often seeks mentors to help her to learn and grow.
As a First Generation Professionals (FGP) Fellow, Rodriguez is eager to partake in the coaching and networking sessions administered through the Center on Professionalism (COP). The FGP Fellowship, made possible by a generous gift from David Silk L’88, now supports nine students across all class years at the Law School. Though she is excited to engage in many of the professionalism topics, she is especially excited to work one-on-one with a coach who will help her practice telling her story.
“I think it’s important to know how to tell your story, because it takes practice to even wrap your head around what defines you,” Rodriguez said, explaining that, even as she wrote her application for the FGP Fellowship, she struggled to determine what details she should include. “It was really hard for me to write the application, because I took a lot of things I went through for granted. I would omit these really important events in my life. It’s really cool that they’re going to work with me on storytelling, interviews, and confidence building. It’s empowering.”
Now as a law student, Rodriguez’s dreams have only grown and stretched farther toward horizons around the globe.
Rodriguez is excited to incorporate her humanities-driven ethos into a new set of skills that will ultimately enable her to bring real, tangible change to people’s lives. Also pursuing a dual degree in Bioethics, Rodriguez aims to work in health policy. Her goal is to help make healthcare more equitable and accessible for immigrant and refugee populations.
“My dream-dream is to work at the UN and help them approach refugee crises in a more humane way. That’s why I’m learning Arabic. I’ve already learned German. And my mom is my Spanish language teacher,” Rodriguez said. “The refugee crises in South and Central America are especially urgent, and so are the ones in the Middle East. I want to keep my options very open. That’s why I need to learn all the languages: so I can help immigrant and refugee communities achieve equitable access to quality healthcare.”