In a previous career before setting foot in a UW classroom, there was no telling who would be on the line when Oliana Luke picked up the phone: It could be someone on the brink of suicide, someone who had just survived a sexual assault, someone grappling with trauma with nowhere else to turn, or worse.

As a case manager at a rape crisis center in her hometown in western North Carolina, Luke has heard a lifetime’s worth of painful stories. But rather than being deterred by the cycle of suffering, the experience inspired Luke to want to do more. That’s when she decided to go to law school.

“What drew me to that kind of work was the immediate impact I was having on somebody,” Luke said. “That’s a very good thing about working at a crisis center: You’re on the phone with someone during one of their most dire moments, and that’s part of why the work is exhausting, emotionally taxing but also so rewarding. I’ve had people say, ‘You saved my life.’

“As an attorney, you can have that kind of impact on people but also have the ability to provide structural change.”

Luke, a rising 2L at UW Law, said she wants to help individuals while disrupting the conditions that foment violence at a higher level. That put her on the path to UW Law, where as an outstanding 1L, she caught the eye of the Justice John Paul Stevens Public Interest Fellowship program.

The program honors the retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice’s dedication to improving access to justice, supporting two annual fellowships that provide students the opportunity to complete an unpaid public interest summer law position. This year, Luke was one of the two fellowship recipients.

“I literally cried when I got it — it was just such a huge weight off my shoulders,” Luke said. “I come from a fairly low-income household, I’m in law school all on student loans, and so getting this fellowship meant I could go about my work without any other extenuating stressors.

“Now I can feel proud about the work I’m doing, go home, decompress and not have to think about anything but waking up and doing it again the next day.”

Legal services are so inaccessible to so many people, and so to see someone who’s panicked and confused then to be able to provide that service for them — it’s just really rewarding.”

Oliana Luke

The Steven Fellow landed an internship at the Benefits Law Center — formerly the Seattle Community Law Center — which provides pro bono services for people with federal disability benefits who have been either been cut off or have other complicating issues. The organization specifically targets homeless and housing insecure populations, who commonly depend on disability benefits for rent when they are unable to work.

Luke works under a supervising attorney, performing intakes, attending hearings, meeting with clients and writing briefs to appeal various cases. The work, while challenging, dovetails with the goals Luke has set for herself.

“Legal services are so inaccessible to so many people, and so to see someone who’s panicked and confused then to be able to provide this service — it’s just really rewarding,” she said.

As a rising 2L, Luke hasn’t taken courses in administrative law just yet, which is the kind of work the internship entails. While she had little idea what it would be like before starting the job, thanks to the guidance she has received, she quickly settled in to the work and finds value in helping these vulnerable populations.

“It’s a totally different type of law, and I haven’t learned any of it in the classroom yet,” Luke said. “But it’s important to see that the way I’m thinking about and approaching problems here mirror what I’m learning in the classroom.

“It’s great to be in an organization that, in addition to the mentorship I’m receiving, they also trust me to put me in front of clients, conduct interviews and run through all these different kinds of issues.”

As she enters her 2L year in fall 2019, Luke said her ultimate goal is to do impact litigation around civil rights and constitutional law. Along the way, she has found the opportunities to gain real-world experience that complements her education to be diverse and robust, and she has found the educational community around her is as passionate as she is to make a positive impact on the world.

“I’ve just been amazed how the UW Law culture is so communal,” Luke said. “Everybody’s trying to help each other and do their best while also doing good in the community. I look forward to continuing to be a part of that culture and lifting up entire Seattle area.”