First in her family
Angela Caldwell, a Native American, overcomes
community attitudes to become a lawyer
Photo by Tom Cogill
believes her law
degree will enable her to one day help members of her Lumbee
tribe in North Carolina.
By Matt Kelly
Angela Caldwell earned a law degree because people said she could not.
Caldwell, 26, mother of three and a member of the Lumbee Indian tribe,
rose above poverty and a community riddled with self-destructive behavior
to be the first in her family to finish college and go to law
daughter of a career military man, Caldwell grew up in many places,
spending the longest
time in North Carolina, where her family originated.
have had any drug I wanted,” she said of her youth. “But
I chose not to, because I wanted so much more for myself.”
Apart from drugs, Caldwell had to overcome community attitudes about women.
expected to clean up after men and to take care of the kids, and that is
their job,” she said. “On any given Sunday, if the men come to
my mother’s house to eat, they all sit down at the table and wait for their
wives and the women to fix their plates. I hated that. It drove me crazy because
I felt like my mind was just as strong as any man’s that was there. I always
felt I had to prove myself to be something more.”
Since she was smart in school, Caldwell’s parents encouraged her to consider
college, an option for few in her community.
But “it’s hard to escape circumstances,” Caldwell said. By
the time she was 17, she was married and pregnant. Since her parents did not
approve of her marriage initially, Caldwell did not get support from her family
at the time.
told me, ‘You’ll never be anything. You’ll never graduate
from college. You’ve taken all that brain power and wasted it,’” Caldwell
said. “So with me and my husband, with everything working against us, we
have always fought to be better, to be more than they said we could be.”
As a step in that direction, Caldwell earned a high school equivalency
degree, and enrolled in Columbus State University in Georgia.
At the time, she was
caring for a 1-year-old child and pregnant with her second.
She finished her political science degree, with a minor in
legal reasoning, in El Paso, Texas, in 2001.
While Caldwell had started out to be a nurse, she realized
her talents were with the law. “The more law classes I took, the more I realized this is something
I love,” she said. “The only thing I want to do is be in a court
room somewhere, arguing with somebody about something.”
She sees the law as something than can help her tribe and
can be used to assist people in making day-to-day decisions.
reasoning and researching and finding answers,” she said. “When
you come with a theory of who is responsible, or the theory you’re going
to sue under, you have to be able to support it. I love getting to that point
and finding novel ways of getting around things.”
Caldwell is very good with details, said Daniel R. Ortiz,
the John Allan Love Professor of Law, who taught her
civil procedure. “She has both feet on
the ground and is steady, but buoyant,” Ortiz said. “She has a quick
eye for detail, which is very helpful. There are times that, if you can’t
master the detail, you’re swallowed up.”
U.Va. was a good fit for her.
to U.Va. because I thought it offered all the things I was looking for in
a school,” she said. “I was looking for a place that was a good
place to have kids, a collegial atmosphere, that was friendly and supportive.”
Caldwell had her youngest, Macailah, now 16 months
old, while a law student. She did not take time
off from school
School to be
“I’ve been able to bring my kids to any class I’ve needed to with
no problem,” she said. “I’ve always felt my family was welcome
so I didn’t have to exclude myself [from any activity].”
“Angela has indeed set the standard for effective multi-tasking,” said
Beverly P. Harmon, assistant dean of student affairs at the Law
takes parenting seriously and is often accompanied by her three children, [who]
are very much a part of our community.”
Active in the Law School, Caldwell has provided
pro bono legal work and played softball.
She is a member
board member for the Journal on Social Policy
and the Law, and a chairwoman for Virginia
After walking the Lawn, Caldwell and her
family will move to Richmond, where she
a pro bono
fellowship with the
law firm of
Hunton & Williams,
and her husband will take his turn at going to school.
While she would love to do legal aid work “forever,” she needs to
practice law at a private firm to support her family. Longer term, however, she
dreams of becoming a U.S. senator from North Carolina — a position she
believes would best enable her to help her tribe.