Twenty students from the Prelaw Undergraduate Scholars (PLUS) Program at Heritage University recently visited UW Law for an afternoon designed to encourage more diverse students, especially from the Latinx and indigenous communities, to enroll in law school and return home to practice. The program addresses a critical shortage of lawyers in Central Washington and the need to increase access to justice.

The Law School Admission Council (LSAC) funds the PLUS partnership among Washington’s three law schools and Heritage University in Toppenish. At UW Law, the students were hosted by professors Kim Ambrose and Bill Covington and Director of Inclusion Initiatives, Community Outreach & Alumni Relations Lisa Castilleja, following a visit to Seattle University earlier in the day. The cohort will also make a separate visit to Gonzaga University.

“It was such an honor to participate in their campus visit to UW,” said Castilleja, who grew up in the Yakima Valley. “I am so pleased that pipeline programs are now being offered in the community. It was inspiring to learn more about the program participants and wonderful to see their excitement as they learned how pursuing a legal career could help them become advocates for their communities.”

The LSAC PLUS program includes a three-week summer intensive at Heritage University, where students participate in activities like mock law school classes and modules that enable them to visualize themselves as lawyers. They visit with Washington Supreme Court justices, as well as community lawyers and judges who offer mentorships and have roundtable discussions with leaders of minority bar associations.

Professor Bill Covington greeted the students with a talk about the importance of their voice in the legal arena and monitored their participation in a legal argument exercise. “I found it very exciting to see our Heritage University visitors work on a mock legal problem,” he said. “These students brought energy and imagination to their roles as plaintiffs or defendants drafting a closing statement. I had the chance to circulate, hear their ideas and share advice. The program organizers did a splendid job creating a program that generated interest in the law and law school.”

During the visit, UW Law spoke with three participants – Alicia Ibarra, Favian Mares and Zulma Salinas Quiñones – about their upbringing, experiences in the program and sights for the future.

UW Law: Tell us about your upbringing in the Yakima Valley.

Alicia Ibarra: I came from two immigrant parents. My father passed away when I was about three years old, and my mother gave me up to be raised by my grandparents. We lived a very poor life because they were living off disability checks and Social Security checks. At the age of 17, I got pregnant. My daughter was about 8 months old when I graduated from high school. When I started college, I failed many classes and was told that I wasn’t very smart. My math scores were so low that I failed those classes too. I kept telling myself, ‘One class at a time.’ It took forever, but in 2019 I finally graduated with my associate’s degree. That summer I applied to Heritage University.

Favian Mares: I am the first generation in my migrant, agricultural family to attend college, which I did here at the University of Washington. In Toppenish, our community is predominantly Latinx and Native American. Within the Latinx culture, there's really an emphasis on unity and family. Family comfort comes first. So as one of the older siblings in my family, I had a responsibility to provide. Luckily, I was blessed with parents that appreciated education and they pushed us to get as much education as we could. But even with that support, I did not have the knowledge to continue on with higher education. We fall into a pipeline of continuing along the lines of what has been exposed to us. Because of the lack of resources and a lack of exposure, some students are not able to envision themselves in a place other than their own community.

Zulma Salinas Quiñones: I was raised in a farmworker’s family as well. Lisa Castilleja made a comment today that we really shouldn’t listen when we’re told we can’t do certain things. Because of the area that we grew up in, the lower Yakima Valley, there are many opportunities that were so limited and not really provided. Even the teaching profession is predominantly White as well. So, we didn’t even have the space growing up to even try to envision ourselves in those positions. There also wasn’t a cultural competency in people, which speaks to what is needed and what gaps need to be filled.

UW Law: How did you hear about the LSAC PLUS Program? What are some of the highlights of your experience so far?

Ibarra: As an undergraduate at Heritage, my first professors were a Supreme Court guest judge who was previously a lawyer and a retired police officer. These two people made me believe I could do anything I could set my mind to. Every semester for the last three years, I would hear, “Alice, you’re going to be a great lawyer.” Here I am taking the steps to be a lawyer. It just takes one person that believes in you. The LSAC PLUS Program has been such an amazing opportunity. Having a full-time job and going to PLUS class from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. hasn’t been easy but it has been worth it! My dreams don’t feel so far-fetched.

Mares: I was inspired after meeting Patricia Loera, UW’s Director of Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity. She’s also from the Yakima Valley. Hearing her talk about her experiences with the law, going from the Yakima Valley to UW School of Law, and her trajectory afterwards just sparked a fire in me that I had not seen or felt before. It ignited something when I saw someone that looks like me in a professional position I could aspire to. As far as program highlights, the Washington Supreme Court justices come to mind. I was especially touched by Chief Justice Steven Gonzalez. His wife also spoke about her experience. Seeing Latinx representation really inspired me as well as their stories. I was able to see myself through Chief Justice Gonzales. He is a Latino male from humble beginnings. When he shared his passion and his purpose within that, it inspired me.

Salinas Quiñones: I attended Central Washington University and graduated in 2016 with a major in Philosophy and double minor in Sociology and Spanish. I learned about the LSAC PLUS program through an internship. I also got a scholarship from the Latino Bar Association and made another connection that put the program on my radar. I'm really happy that it didn't just come from like one person. I definitely hope that over the years, this program continues and keeps on growing and becoming more known. Because I'm sure if I would have known about this before, after graduating high school or college, I would probably already be in a different place in life for sure.

UW Law: What was your favorite part of visiting the law schools today?

Ibarra: At every stop, I’ve really appreciated that we’ve had lawyers, judges, admissions officers and so many more people taking time out of their day to make it as easy as possible for us to understand the process of getting into law school.

Mares: What helped me the most was being in a safe space to ask questions, especially since imposter syndrome is real. I remember asking my teammates questions, then the dean [Covington] would come in, or the professor [Ambrose] would come around. I'd ask them and they were just so willing to explain everything as simple as it is. And I like that the bar is set high. In Toppenish, the bar and expectations are set relatively low. Not much is expected of us. They only expect us to move to the next step. Today, Lisa [Castilleja] did an amazing job of setting expectations high… but we're learning even as we are failing.

Salinas Quiñones: I appreciate the professors today teaching us, going through a case and breaking it down. Challenging us to think like a lawyer was amazing. The case was like a puzzle to solve, and I found further interest in the law by doing that exercise. We had to lay out the facts and basically decide what to charge. The professor did a really great job of going through each statement of fact in the case and letting us know, “this is going to be applicable for this charge,” and, as we went along, finding out what charges might be added. I only wish we had more time.

Alicia Ibarra graduated from Heritage University on May 13 with a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice. She is currently pursuing an LL.M. at Regent University while studying for the LSAT that she will take at the end of the year. Favian Mares grew up in the Yakima Valley and graduated from the UW in 2022 with a major in Education, Communities and Organizations and a minor in Nutrition. Zulma Salinas Quiñones went to Central Washington University and graduated in 2016 with a major in Philosophy and double minor in Sociology and Spanish.

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