“I Do Belong Here”: First-Year Law Student Selected for Federal Judicial Fellowship

  • By Kayla Molander

Jacqueline Garcia ’26 grew up with a negative view  of the justice system.

“I know many people who have made mistakes in their lives, including some family and friends,” she says. “One of my earliest experiences with the justice system is a vague memory of going to court for a family member when I was a little girl.”

This summer she’ll be given the opportunity to see the justice system through a different lens. She’s been recognized as one of only eight recipients of the 2024 Federal Magistrate Judges Association (FMJA) fellowship.

As part of the fellowship, Garcia will serve as a judicial extern with a United States Magistrate Judge, receive a stipend of $2,500, and have the opportunity to participate in FMJA’s path to the bench and federal clerkship programs.

“I don’t know if my journey will end with me as a judge one day, but I’m open to the possibility of it,” she says. “I never really thought about being a judge because of how I grew up.”

Garcia’s father struggled with substance addiction throughout her childhood and was incarcerated several times for non-violent crimes.

When she was a teenager, her father put the past behind him and worked on his sobriety.

“Seeing my dad go through that and not actually get any help from our justice system was difficult, especially when I would hear stories about other people doing similar things, but not going to jail or prison. I always wondered why his experience was so different,” Garcia says.

Garcia spent her adolescence trying to understand the justice system and realized the only way to truly understand its role in her life and that of her family was to go to law school.

But her journey there wasn’t a direct path.

She graduated from California State University, Long Beach in 2010 with law school in her sights, but life had other plans. Among the biggest hurdles was that her parents, like so many others at that time, experienced foreclosure.

“I wish I was older and more educated at that time to help my parents find their way through that,” she says. “I remember my mom going through the paperwork, crying, and experiencing all the emotions one feels when they’re about to lose their home and not knowing where we’re going to live next.”

Garcia had been working part-time at Wells Fargo during college and transitioned to full-time to help her family financially. Law school had to wait.

“My siblings were in school, and my parents were struggling, and I just felt like I needed to step up even though I was still relatively young,” she says.

Life eventually balanced out and became a little easier. Garcia continued working her way up the ladder at Wells Fargo, attaining more challenging roles as the years went on, but that success left her with little time to pursue her dream of law school, which she refused to chalk up to a pipe dream.

From 2015 to 2016 she made one attempt at law school, but that didn’t work out. She didn’t know if she was cut out for her dream, so she continued to work on her professional skills while she reflected on what she wanted to do next.

It wasn’t until 2022 that the stars aligned, and she worked up the courage to apply to law school again. By then, she had the confidence that she could balance work, studying for the LSAT, and all of life’s rigors.

This time, she cast a wider net hoping for one offer—and got several, ultimately choosing Chicago-Kent College of Law.

“Life sometimes throws you curveballs, and one of my strong suits is being determined and resilient,” Garcia says. “No matter how long something’s going to take me, I never felt like giving up was an option.”

That determination is beginning to pay off, with the FMJA fellowship as the next step. The program was created in partnership with Just the Beginning—A Pipeline Organization, which is committed to helping students, especially students of color and those from underrepresented communities, create a realistic path toward becoming a lawyer, leader, or judge.

“I’m a first-generation law student. Growing up I didn’t know anyone who was in the legal profession. I’m also a non-traditional student,” says Garcia. “Knowing that there were programs like Just the Beginning made me feel like I have a shot, because they’re looking for people like me.”

Garcia isn’t sure yet what she wants to do with her J.D. From her own experiences, she’s drawn to criminal and real estate/foreclosure law. She hopes that this fellowship will help her explore her options.

She’s still reeling from the announcement, but she’s beginning to believe that it’s real.

“They saw something in me. Maybe I don’t see that in myself. Maybe that’ll come with time,” Garcia says. “But you know what? I do belong here.”

Photo: provided

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