Class of 2019 grads recount memories, milestones

The Class of 2019 walked across the commencement stage a full 120 years after School of Law’s first students set foot in a classroom — a testament to the generations of UW Law graduates who have dedicated their careers to advancing the legal profession.

This academic year, more than 300 degrees were conferred across the school’s four programs — Juris Doctorate (J.D.), Master of Laws (LL.M.), Master of Jurisprudence (M.J.) and Ph.D. in Law. From lifelong Washingtonians to students from countries as far away as Kenya, China and India, the Class of 2019 comprises students from all walks of life who embody the law school’s boundless spirit through their education, scholarship and careers.

As UW Law celebrates this year’s graduating class, hear from four students who are setting off to make their own impacts around the globe.

Connie Cheng J.D. '19

When Connie Cheng set her sights on changing the world, she imagined she would be doing it from inside a laboratory, not a law office.

While her younger self may have been wrong about the destination, today Cheng is poised to make a tremendous impact on the scientific field after a formative journey.

Originally from St. Paul, Minnesota, Cheng completed her undergraduate degree in bioengineering at Harvard and went straight to the University of Washington to earn her Ph.D. For Cheng, advancing science was the key to unlocking the door to a better, healthier future.

“I’ve always believed in the potential for technology to change the world,” Cheng said, “and I was most interested in bioengineering because of the opportunities to improve medical technology, create better drugs and treatment, to cure diseases and to pursue a better quality of life. That’s why I moved to Seattle.”

But it was in Seattle that Cheng changed course. She arrived at the UW dead set on becoming a scientist and had set herself up to do so. While earning her Ph.D., she became interested in helping others on a different scale.

“Throughout my Ph.D., I began to realize that developing new technology in a lab setting is still very far removed from having a viable product that can be used to treat people,” Cheng said. “There are a lot of steps and barriers to get from what we call ‘bench to bedside.’ I became interested in figuring out what else needs to happen in order for a technology to be successfully translated into commercial product.”

After earning her Ph.D., Cheng joined a downtown Seattle law firm as a scientific advisor, a role in which she supported patent agents and attorneys with applying for and obtaining patents on behalf of inventors. Over three years, she became a patent agent, and by sitting on the other side of the table from scientists and engineers, she solidified her connection with the legal profession and decided to go back to school.

She says her work in the Entrepreneurial Law Clinic (ELC) was one of the most important experiences of her academic career. The law school offers a vast range of experiential learning opportunities, including 14 clinics that give students chances to work with real-world clients in a variety of fields.

ELC students provide free legal services to entrepreneurs, inventors and startups who otherwise couldn’t afford attorneys, fostering opportunities for students to get hands-on experience with clients particularly in the IP and patent law space. Unsurprisingly, it was a natural fit for Cheng.

“The clinic was a really amazing experience not only in helping me learn the law, but by working with clients, it really prepared me for my future legal career,” she said. “At the same time for someone who has been really privileged in terms of having access to education, I felt it really important to turn that around and use it for the good of the community.”

In her final year, she earned the King County Bar Foundation Minority Scholarship and the Delta Theta Phi Scholarship, officially securing her J.D. in winter 2018. As she returns to the workforce as an associate attorney in the patent prosecution group at one of the biggest firms in the country, Cheng said she is thrilled to apply her expertise in the world.

“Looking back, it is very surprising to me I’ve ended up on this path,” she said. “But it was so fortunate I did have the opportunity to learn about patent law, which still draws on my tech background while bringing in so many other skills. It’s just a truly interdisciplinary field that I find really cool and fun.”

Tameisha Dawkins LL.M. '19

William Shakespeare probably never imagined his work would inspire a future leader on the frontlines of the fight against human trafficking, but that’s exactly what happened.

When Tameisha Dawkins was in high school in her home country of Jamaica, she was part of a reenactment of “The Merchant of Venice,” a story of love and debt that culminates in an epic courtroom showdown. As it turns out, the saga of Bassanio, Portia and Shylock would have a profound effect on Dawkins’ career as it was after her performance classmates suggested Dawkins would make a great lawyer — and today, she does.

“I believe the law is one way I can help people who can’t help themselves, especially those who want to access services but don’t have a voice,” Dawkins said. “I always knew I wanted to impact positively those around me, and that prompted me to pursue a legal education.”

After her short-lived high school career as a thespian came to a close, Dawkins completed her undergraduate studies at the University of the West Indies in Kingston. She entered the workforce as an immigration officer with the Jamaican government, and while working full time, she earned her Bachelor of Laws (LL.B.) through the University of London International Programmes.

Dawkins went on to work for a human rights organization that investigates and addresses excessive use of force by police — an issue she said is a huge problem in Jamaica — and eventually moved on to different government entity focusing on human trafficking.

She loved her work but ultimately wanted to take it a step further. That’s when she found UW Law.

“While I was working both jobs, I realized the need for furthering my education and expanding my worldview to acquire new knowledge and practices that would help me be more effective in my work,” Dawkins said.

She heard about the law school’s Sustainable International Development (SID) LL.M. program from a friend. The SID program offers a unique degree path that provides lawyers with the tools to promote social change and a sustainable future for people and the planet, fight for human rights through the rule of law, and support sustainable development and economic growth while preserving natural resources for future generations.

It is one of seven LL.M. programs offered by UW Law — Asian Law, Global Business, Health, Intellectual Property, SID, Tax and General Law — that focus on the most compelling and challenging areas of advanced study for lawyers.

Dawkins applied twice and was successful on the second attempt. This time, she was not only admitted, but admitted as a Barer Fellow. Each year, the Barer Institute for Law & Global Human Services — established by Stan and his late wife Alta Barer — bestows fellowships to a handful of students who intend to serve as change-makers in their home countries.

For someone who had never lived in the United States, she felt an immediate sense of community from her professors and peers.

“I found I was surrounded by a diverse group of classmates who really made this journey memorable for me,” she said. “I believe the professors are some of the best in the world, and what I liked the most is that they had battle scars. They could tell you about their own experiences working in the field, facing challenges and really putting a human face to academic pursuit.

“We’re not just talking about words; we’re talking about taking every measure to impact the world positively.”

Before she returns to Jamaica, Dawkins is completing an internship with a prominent Seattle NGO, which she said will provide her with integral experience for her job as an anti-human trafficking officer back home.

Looking back, she remains grateful for the opportunity to advance her education at UW Law as a result of her Barer Fellowship.

“I feel truly honored and blessed to be a Barer Fellow and to have benefited from the kindness and generosity of Stan and Alta Barer,” Dawkins said. “Alta has left an immense legacy that will live on through all the Barer Fellows, and her work to build a better, brighter future for everyone has really inspired me to go back to Jamaica, pay it forward and apply all that I have learned.”

Joseph Francis M.J. '19

From the Virgin Islands and Silicon Valley to the Pacific Northwest on to Japan, Joseph Francis’ passport has logged some serious miles in pursuit of his dream career alone.

Born and raised on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, Francis moved to San Jose where he knocked out his undergraduate education and joined a major wealth management company in the financial services sector. As his managerial responsibility grew, Francis sought to broaden his knowledge base to better serve his team and own career goals. He chose the UW at which to do it.

Francis jumped in with both feet, applying to and being accepted into both the Foster School of Business and UW Law. Francis, who did not intend to practice law, decided to build a solid foundation in the legal fields applicable to his career through an M.J. degree.

“I have the vision that legal education is for everyone,” Francis said. “You don’t have to feel you need to be an attorney to be proficient in the law. It’s something we all have to abide by, so it’s important to feel empowered to use what you know to better yourself.”

The M.J. program offers a one-year degree path for those seeking to broaden their legal knowledge in a specific field but do not want to be an attorney. Each track is customized to a student’s lifestyle and career, drawing from other units on campus to provide a wholly unique educational experience that meets a growing need for professionals with legal training.

Francis wanted to become both a better manager and financial professional who was equipped to navigate potential legal minefields on behalf of clients. For example, he said, Francis deals in a substantial amount of contracts work, where the fine print and legal ramifications thereof can be the difference between success or otherwise. He said his legal foundation gives him the tools to keep himself “out of hot water” and set himself up to open new opportunities for his company and clientele.

“Now the tables have turned,” he said. “I feel the foundation I’ve built here at UW Law allows me to ask the most important questions and interpret what appropriate responses will be.”

Francis walked off the UW campus degree in hand in spring 2019 and will end up on a plane to Japan, where his wife, a nurse in the U.S. Navy, will be taking a leadership role in an operating room just south of Tokyo.

For the next few years, Francis will be applying his skills and knowledge in Silicon Valley from across the Pacific as part of a whole new adventure with his family.

“I’m excited to take what I’ve learned and put it into action.”

Juan Chu Ph.D '19

Juan Chu is no stranger to tough challenges: Upon arriving at UW Law, she already had a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B.) and master’s degree under her belt from two of China’s top Universities and had her sights set on tackling some of the country’s biggest governmental and public administration issues.

But it was while pursuing her Ph.D. at UW Law that Chu was pushed to the limit, and it was her triumph in the face of adversity that ultimately led her to becoming one of program’s most successful students.

“I had never been to the United States before; I actually had never been to a foreign country before,” Chu said. “I had dreamed of receiving rigorous academic training and had many ideas about the U.S. Still, my first year, it was really hard with so many language and cultural differences.”

Chu remembers being on the phone with her utilities company and having trouble making sense of what they were saying. For someone so deeply knowledgeable, educated and determined, Chu suddenly felt out of place as she went to work on one of the biggest academic challenges one can undertake.

Chu’s journey to UW Law began at a young age. Her aunt is a judge in China, and Chu always thought that would be a fun role to play. She ended up obtaining her LL.B. from Sun Yat-sen University then moved on to earn a master’s degree in Government and Public Administration from The Chinese University of Hong Kong. During that time, she performed volunteer work with local social organizations and became interested in environmental governance and environmental policy-making processes in China.

As she spent another year working as a project assistant at a top research institution, she felt her biggest strengths may lead her elsewhere.

“I realized that I might be better at academic research instead of managing programs, so I quit and decided to pursue a Ph.D.,” Chu said.

It was a difficult and life-changing decision. Chu had applied to both Chinese and American law schools and was accepted back in Hong Kong. International students can face difficult roads to acceptance into the doctoral programs of American law schools as foreign LL.B.s need an LL.M. to qualify for many doctoral programs in law. She was encouraged to apply to UW Law anyways, and to her shock, she was accepted. She packed up with her husband and moved into family housing on campus.

Thus began the struggles in adapting to her new world. Aside from the cultural barriers, UW Law’s Ph.D. program is a demanding, three-year track that prepares graduates for global leadership in the judiciary, academia, business and government. Many of the country’s top law school’s do not offer the degree, and as such, it is highly competitive.

“I didn’t know if I made the right decision to go to law school and if I would even make it in this country,” Chu said. “This painful experience is common to many foreign students in their first or second years, and I’m glad that I survived.”

Still, her initial research proposal on land use and housing demolition in China struck a chord with UW Law faculty members who encouraged her as she shaped her dissertation. During this time, Chu worked as a research assistant for the international NGO Landesa, which, along with UW Law’s Sustainable International Development (SID) LL.M. program, was founded by Roy Prosterman, University of Washington Professor Emeritus of Law.

Despite challenges both on and off campus, Chu seemed on course to cross the finish line.

In her third year in the program, Chu gave birth to her daughter. Her life changed dramatically, and her joy was supplemented with acute bouts of post-natal depression, impacting her academic work and raising the same doubts as when she arrived at the UW.

Still, Chu remained determined and worked closely with her faculty supervisors to refine and finalize her dissertation topic. In the end, she decided to explore the fundamental nature of Chinese environmental public interest litigation. She wrote an article based on her dissertation, and with the encouragement of her mentor Sanne Knudsen, Stimson Bullitt Professor of Environmental Law, Chu submitted it to a number of law journals for consideration for publication.

The article, “Vindicating Public Environmental Interest: Defining the Role of Environmental Public Interest Litigation in China,” earned Chu two offers. She chose Ecology Law Quarterly, which is a leading journal in environmental law in the United States and also indexed in the Social Sciences Citation Index, which is preferred by most Chinese universities and employers.

Chu earned her Ph.D. in winter 2018 and returned to China. Because she received funding from the Chinese government to go to an American school, she was required to return to work in the country for a minimum of two years.

She secured a position at the East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai, where she teaches Chinese environmental law and comparative environmental law.

Chu credits her success to the guidance, help and support of Knudsen, with whom she worked through the most challenging stretches at UW Law. She said she could not have completed the program and gone on to become a published scholar without Knudsen’s help.

Looking back, Chu is honest about the difficulties of earning such a prestigious degree in a foreign country — not to mention those involved in becoming a published legal scholar. Those challenges, she said, are what emboldened her to reach a new level in her career.

“I am most proud of how I didn’t give up,” Chu said. “I am a persistent person and a hard-working student. Having my daughter during my Ph.D. career, that’s one of my biggest accomplishments because of the pressure and having to balance study and life — and I did it.”