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Law grad makes tenacity her trademark

May 11, 2007
Victoria TandyIf Victoria Tandy's father could have been at her law school graduation this week, there would have been pride in his eyes – and a bouquet of orchids and daisies (her favorites) in his hands.

The only child of Federico Patino has bravely played the cards dealt in an unlucky deck, overcome fear and survived tragedy since arriving in Arizona from Colombia 5 1/2 years ago.

Tandy is among the 179 graduates of the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law who gathered for convocation May 11 in Gammage Auditorium. Her mother, Guiomar, cheered from the audience, but her father was not there. He was assassinated in November 2004, just as Tandy began her first-semester finals.

Tandy grew up in Manizales, Colombia, a violent land torn by civil war, with high unemployment and scarce opportunities. Tandy's father was a professor and scientist; her mother is a physician.

Tandy earned an industrial engineering degree from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia. Via an international nonprofit agency, Tandy accepted an internship in human resources management at a Scottsdale hotel and arrived in Phoenix on Sept. 11, 2001, not knowing any English.

But because of a downturn in tourism attributed to the terrorist attacks, Tandy soon was reassigned to housekeeping. After months of cleaning toilets and changing beds, Tandy quit to look for other work, but she was overqualified for some jobs and didn't know enough English for others.

“I didn't want to tell my parents I was in bad shape,” she says. “I walked around, trying to find jobs, because I didn't have a car, and I would sleep a lot so that I didn't feel hungry.”

In February 2002, Tandy began work in a department store's call center and later worked as a law firm's receptionist. She used both experiences to improve her English. She also discovered the public library, where she checked out books to learn more. Tandy eventually took the LSAT on a dare – friends thought it would be an accurate measure of her fluency – which she passed, and she then was accepted to the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law.

Professor Michael Berch, whom Tandy approached for admissions help, says he was struck by her applications' personal statement. It communicated the shocking details of life in Colombia, and her determination not to let it define who she is.

“She's overcome more than most,” Berch says. “She's from a place where people were murdered. She didn't know English, she comes to law school – and now she's got a job at one of the leading Phoenix law firms.”

Tandy will join the civil litigation section of Quarles & Brady, but her heart is in criminal defense. She volunteered more than 150 hours to the Arizona Justice Project, initially translating for clients' families and later assigned to two capital cases.

“I don't like the idea of judging people right away without knowing what happened to them,” says Tandy, 27. “Sometimes they have been abused, their families are dysfunctional, and that didn't give them justification (to commit crimes), but they deserve the chance to be represented in the way of everyone else.”

That sense of justice came from her father, whose killer was never found, Tandy says.

“My dad always said, ‘You treat everybody right, everybody equally, no matter what they do,' ” she says.

Tandy, who earned pro bono distinction at the law school, also did an externship with Arizona Court of Appeals Judge Donn Kessler. It never was apparent that English wasn't Tandy's first language, Kessler says.

“She was one of the outstanding picks,” he says. “She dove right into it. Her work was so good that we gave her a case, and a law clerk did some supervision. She did a wonderful job.”

Tandy is establishing a scholarship in her name, a $3,000 annual diversity award to first- or second-generation immigrants. She says she is sad to leave law school.

“I liked feeling like I was part of a community or part of something in this country,” Tandy says. “I didn't feel as ‘homeless,' I guess.”

She will spend some time this summer in Colombia, the second such visit since her father died. Landing at the airport, adjacent to the cemetery where he is buried, will be difficult because he always met her at the door with orchids and daisies. This time, she will take flowers to his grave, and they will be his favorite: red carnations.