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Native American U.Va. Student Overcomes Poverty, Community Attitudes To Become Lawyer

May 6, 2004 -- 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, will earn her degree from the University of Virginia Law School on May 16. The path to this achievement has been challenging.

She rose above poverty and a community riddled with self-destructive behavior and defeatism to be the first in her family to finish college and go to law school. The daughter of a career military man, Caldwell grew up in many places, spending the longest time in North Carolina, where her family originated.

Caldwell said of her youth, “I could have had any drug I wanted. But I chose not to, because I wanted so much more for myself.”

Apart from drugs, Caldwell had to overcome community attitudes about women.

“Women are 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.

“People 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.

“I love 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 at U.Va., who taught her civil procedure. “She has both feet on the ground and is steady, but buoyant,” he 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.

She chose to attend the University “because I thought it offered all the things I was looking for … 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 and found the Law School to be very supportive.

“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 School. “She takes parenting seriously and is often accompanied by her three children as they make their way to the bookstore, library or Law School events. Angela’s children are … very much a part of our community.”

Caldwell has participated in Law School activities, including playing softball and providing pro bono legal work. She is a member of the Law Christian Fellowship, a senior editorial board member for the Journal on Social Policy and the Law, and communications chairwoman for Virginia Law Families.

After walking the Lawn May 16, Caldwell and her family will move to Richmond, where she will start 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 knows 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.

Contact: Matt Kelly, (434) 924-7291

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (434) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (434) 924-7550.

SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-Nov-2005 10:39:40 EST
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