Growing in size and also in stature, the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University welcomes its largest and most accomplished incoming class this fall.
Featuring more than 450 new students, the 2017 Juris Doctor class enters with an average LSAT score of 162, and a composite grade-point average of 3.75, the highest combined medians in the 50-year history of ASU Law.
“You’re going to learn that you’re an incredibly impressive bunch,” said Dean Douglas Sylvester, addressing the group at student orientation. “Now the first thing you’ve learned just by looking around is you’re a big group. We have over 260 students in first-year JD classes. That is a tremendously talented and highly credentialed class. We’ve moved up our GPA a tremendous amount, we’ve moved up our LSAT score. This is going to be the highest-ranked and -credentialed class in the history of the law school.”
And the new class at the nation’s 25th-ranked law school is as diverse as it is talented, bringing a wide range of backgrounds and experiences together under one roof at the Beus Center for Law and Society in downtown Phoenix.
The students come from all over. In addition to several international students, the JD class represents 96 undergraduate schools from more than 30 states.
They come from various stages in life. Many are fresh from their undergraduate schools, but there are 50 mid-level Juris Doctor students from 30 schools. Others are making midlife changes, coming from careers such as air traffic controller, engineer, rancher, art gallery curator, and nutritionist.
They come from all disciplines, cultures and backgrounds. They have degrees in science, technology, divinity, counseling and education. They speak Farsi, Hebrew, Hindi, French, Portuguese and Russian. They have climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, performed in ballets, won gold medals, and worked in the Screen Actors Guild.
“What you get a sense of here is not just the credentials, but the diversity of the student body,” Sylvester said. “People from all sorts of different backgrounds. People who have practiced, people who have run businesses, people who have been involved in all sorts of different undergraduate enterprises. Learning from one another is an incredibly important aspect of this law school.”
'Miner' intrigue for a linguistics major
One of those students is Ben Yeager. Born and raised in Tucson, the 33-year-old got a linguistics degree from the University of Arizona a decade ago, then decided to take some time off and learn some other skills before going to grad school.
“I thought it would be valuable and interesting to learn a practical life skill. I figured I would always have a car and knew little more than how to change my oil, so in 2007 I decided to get a job working as an entry-level mechanic at a mine near Tucson,” Yeager said. “During lunch on the second day of the mandatory MSHA training, they asked me to go speak with the head of the engineering department. He told me that he was informed that a linguistics graduate had been hired to work in the truck shop and he was intrigued and asked them for my resume. He set up an interview for later that same day, during which he asked me to work for him as a surveyor instead. I told him I knew nothing about mining or survey and he replied that, based on my resume, he was confident I would quickly learn the role and that they would train me. I reiterated that I knew nothing about the role, he assured me I would be fine, and I loved the job.”
Yeager worked as a surveyor for two years, took a break to travel and work abroad, then returned to the mining industry in 2012, where he continued working until heading to ASU Law this year. Having taken a nontraditional path to law school, he is appreciative of the school’s welcoming environment.
“I learned about the value ASU puts on diversity as I began researching ASU Law,” he said. “I was a little skeptical about how genuine that value might be to ASU as an institution, but through interacting with staff and second- and third-year students, I have had the opportunity to see that they — at least those I have had the pleasure of meeting — are genuinely interested in the different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives of the students.”
He added, “My degree is in linguistics with minors in anthropology and Spanish, chosen because I’m fascinated by language and people and love learning about how their experiences shape the way they see the world. I love that I’m surrounded by such diverse and impressive students and I’m proud to have the opportunity to, in my own small way, further ASU's commitment to celebrating its diversity.”
From the basketball court to the courtroom
Hilary Weaver has faced some sizable obstacles on her road to law school. Having grown up in a small town in Ohio, nobody in her family had ever been to college. Her skills as a basketball player led her to Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, where she studied education while playing point guard for the Mountain Hawks. After college, she landed in Phoenix through the Teach for America program. A challenging but rewarding experience, it inspired her to do even more.
“Working in education exposed me to inequities that I hadn’t previously realized,” said the 25-year-old, who taught middle-school math for two years, then worked as an instructional coach for a year with the Arizona Charter Schools Association. “This realization coupled with my students’ personal stories made it clear to me that social justice is something I deeply value. When thinking about what career path would best equip me to make lasting change in my community, I knew law was the best path.”
Having fallen in love with the Phoenix community at that point, ASU Law was at the top of her list.
“ASU is a prestigious law school, and through ASU Law's student organizations, I would have the opportunity to continue to serve the Phoenix community,” she said. “Further, ASU offers an incredible network of alumni. After having the opportunity to meet with students, faculty and Dean Sylvester, I knew that ASU Law was my top choice.”
Weaver knows something about learning from the best. One of her first games as a freshman at Lehigh was against the two-time defending national champion UConn Huskies, who had won 82 consecutive games. Although Weaver and the Hawks weren’t able to stop the Huskies, who eventually stretched their win streak to 90 games, Weaver relished the opportunity to do battle with one of the sport’s all-time greatest teams.
“From the time I was a sophomore in high school I had been watching Maya Moore play, so competing on the same court as her was particularly memorable,” Weaver said. “I wish I could say that we also ended UConn’s win streak, but we have our place in history as being UConn’s 83rd straight win.”
A basketball journey comes full circle
What’s it like to be on the other side of such a streak? Weaver can ask fellow first-year law student Courtney Ekmark, who played for University of Connecticut a few years later. In her two seasons there, Ekmark helped the Huskies win two national titles and post a 76-1 record, en route to a record-shattering 111-game win streak.
But when that historic streak finally ended this March in a stunning Final Four upset, Ekmark was no longer a Husky. The former Phoenix St. Mary’s standout was a Sun Devil, having transferred back home.
After sitting out the 2016–17 basketball season, per NCAA transfer rules, Ekmark has two years of eligibility left. The 22-year-old will now be pulling double duty, learning about courts at ASU Law while taking the court for the Sun Devils.
“I was obviously concerned when the dean on the first day reminded us that first-year law students aren’t supposed to have a job, because playing basketball at the Division I level is definitely a full-time job,” Ekmark said. “But the good news is he also suggested that we get plenty of exercise, so I have that going for me.”
After deciding to transfer, Ekmark had whittled her list of schools down to two: ASU and Stanford.
“Once I got admitted to Stanford, it was hard to turn down, because my brother actually goes there, and we’re close, so it would’ve been super fun to go to school with him,” she said.
But she was drawn to the ASU basketball team, and the chance to play in front of family and friends again. “I love Coach Charli Turner Thorne and the ASU program, and it’s so awesome to be back in Arizona. I love it here.”
Turner Thorne has known Ekmark since she was a young basketball prodigy leading local teams to national Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) success and dominating older players at Turner Thorne’s basketball camps. So what was the coach’s reaction when Ekmark decided to transfer to ASU?
“Oh my gosh, the utmost joy,” Turner Thorne said. “Courtney is not only an unbelievable basketball player, she’s just an unbelievable person. To have her be part of our family now is incredibly exciting and rewarding.”
And she’s not just here for the basketball.
“ASU Law school, being a top-25 school, that definitely got my attention,” Ekmark said. “However, that’s not as important to me as the people. I met Dean Sylvester, and he’s an awesome guy, and everyone I met at the school has been amazing and very helpful in planning this journey of mine.”
Ekmark’s journey will not be an easy one. In fact, Turner Thorne, whose coaching career began as a graduate assistant at Washington in 1988, says she’s never had a law student on her team before.
“This is a first,” she said. “We were fifth in the nation with our team GPA last year, so we are all about being incredible students and taking advantage of an incredible university like ASU. This is what we recruit. But this is an absolute first.”
Added Turner Thorne, “I’m just so proud of her, I’m so happy for her, I’m so appreciative that our law school saw her potential. It’s going to be very challenging for her, no doubt. But she’s about as hard a working and competitive young lady as I’ve ever met in my entire life.”
It may be an unprecedented challenge, but having earned her undergraduate degree in just three years while also winning a pair of national championships, Ekmark feels prepared for the daunting “double major” of law school and basketball.
“I’m used to budgeting my time,” she said. “When we were making runs through the NCAA Tournament at UConn, we’d be gone for almost a month, so I got used to studying on planes and in the locker room. It will be a huge challenge, for sure, but the opportunity to play for a top-25 team while simultaneously attending a top-25 law school is the type of challenge that I look forward to.”
Frisbee champion follows arc to ASU Law
Leah Tsinajinnie is from Atlanta, having graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 2013 with a degree in business administration. Her father grew up on the Navajo Reservation in Klagetoh, Arizona, and that’s what steered her to ASU Law.
“When applying to law schools, I wanted to apply to one in the Southwest region, with the hopes of reconnecting with my Native American roots,” said Tsinajinnie, 27. “ASU Law was by far the most appealing, especially after learning about the Indian Legal Program.”
She said the program is a truly unique opportunity. “I plan to complete the requirements to get an Indian Law Certificate, as well as participate in some of its other initiatives such as Pipeline to Law and Native Vote Election Protection Project.”
She was also looking for a school that put an emphasis on diversity, and ASU Law’s commitment was evident.
“I made a large, detailed spreadsheet comparing all the schools I was interested in,” she said. “I initially noticed ASU Law's priority on diversity when browsing its website. During my visit, through talking with faculty, staff and students, it became crystal-clear that its commitment to diversity was genuine, not just a buzzword.”
Like so many members of the incoming class, Tsinajinnie’s talents extend beyond the classroom. She was an Ultimate Frisbee standout in college, won back-to-back national championships with her club team in 2013 and 2014, and has played in tournaments all over the world.
She has even used the Frisbee as a tool to promote peace in the Middle East, where she spent most of the past year working with a nonprofit called Ultimate Peace.
“I lived in Israel, and my job was to use Ultimate Frisbee as a tool to teach middle and high school-aged youth values such as mutual respect and integrity, as well as lifelong skills like nonviolent conflict resolution,” she said. “We coached Israeli Jewish, Israeli Arab, Palestinian, Bedouin, and Circassian youth and brought them together at various events during the school year. It's powerful to see young, future leaders break down barriers and become close friends with people from a culture different than their own.”
That desire to make a difference is what ultimately led Tsinajinnie to law school.
“I decided I wanted to go to law school because it will give me the necessary skills and abilities to help people that are disadvantaged by our economic and societal structures,” she said. “However cheesy it may sound, I do want to change the world for the better and make peace.”
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