Upon arrival at the Vanderbilt University School of Law, Samantha Hunt ’18 was inspired to email Alison Howard, chair of Dominican University of California’s Political Science Department, to basically thank her and her other professors and mentors for preparing her for the moment and the momentous occasion.
Samantha has a lot to thankful for, especially this past May when she was named a 2023 Equal Justice Works Fellow, one of only two in Vanderbilt Law School Class of 2023.
“I think the political science and international studies department carried a bulk of the weight in preparing me for law school. We have an excellent selection of professors who I feel teach at a level that forces students to critically think about not just what they are learning, but why they are learning it,” said Samantha, who was a research assistant at Vanderbilt while she interned as a law clerk for a local firm.
“In particular, I took classes with Christian Dean and Eric Sinrod that introduced me to how to read and brief cases. All the professors, including Alison, Gigi Gokcek, and others, relied heavily on the Socratic method to encourage participation and critical engagement. I could really go on about the department. They do their best to produce excellence and give us a meaningful education.”
With that education and experience at Dominican, Samantha has utilized a Panetta Institute Congressional Internship, an internship as an immigration assistant at E&M Mayock and a two-year job as a field representative in the California State Assembly into being a J.D. candidate at Vanderbilt, which is one of the top law schools in the country. Samantha says she has always had an interest in international law, but the past couple years in the workforce piqued her interest in areas like gender discrimination and working with survivors of sexual assault.
Samantha had her eye on attending law school and pursuing a career in law since she was in middle school and started volunteering for a program that was then called the Shasta County Youth/Peer Court. That program, Samantha says, familiarized her with the juvenile court system and with the concept of restorative justice.
After completing an Enterprise High School bus trip from Redding to tour San Francisco Bay Area colleges, Dominican became Samantha's college of choice. A first-generation student, she was taken by the “quaint atmosphere” at Dominican and the opportunity to travel abroad and observe culture and history.
“I was looking for an environment that I thought would foster a personalized learning experience. I certainly received what I wanted in that arena,” Samantha said.
At Dominican, for example, Samantha participated in Campus Ministry service immersion trips to El Salvador, Mexico, and Uganda.
“The El Salvador trip inspired my senior thesis, which included research on policy action,” Samantha said. “After graduating, I continued in the same tone of my research with a summer research fellowship in Turkey. My research focused on Syrian refugee women living in Turkey, and more specifically how civil society organizations were meeting their needs despite policy gaps by the government and international community. This fellowship in particular was a turning point for me, as it helped me realize that I am interested in the intersection of international women's rights and the law.”
At Vanderbilt, Samantha was a Chancellor's Law Scholar, a Justice-Moore Scholar, and recipient of the Dean's Leadership Award and the Damali A. Booker Outstanding 3L Award. During her two-year fellowship she is moving to New York and will represent students who are pregnant or parenting through A Better Balance, an advocacy organization based in New York that supports pregnant workers and caregivers.
In the meanwhile, Samantha’s thoughts have drifted back to Dominican. She is grateful for the opportunities and internships she was presented. In fact, she contacted Professor Howard when she landed internship with the Brennan Center for Justice in New York City in 2020.
“Another great aspect of the international studies and political science department is how willing the professors are to connect their students to great resources. Alison Howard has been a constant source of support and mentorship to me while I learned to navigate the workforce. When she heard I was interested in exploring internships in Washington D.C., she told me about the Panetta Internship. As an aside, she actually also sent me the job listing for the Assembly,” Samantha said.
“Professor Sinrod also introduced me to E&M Mayock, which is an immigration law firm in San Francisco. I interned and then served as an immigration assistant in their office for nearly eight months, which I found so informative. They gave me the opportunity to manage cases and communicate with clients, and it solidified that I was in the right field.”
The Panetta Institute experience, Samantha said, taught her that her interests in research and international studies could co-exist with public policy. That prepared her for the type of work she did with the California State Assembly where she worked with stakeholders at both the state and local level to find workable solutions to issues that affect the community.
“It's been an incredible experience there. I covered a wide range of issue areas for the office, but I focused heavily on education, business, and healthcare,” Samantha said. “If you asked me what I learned most from the experience six months ago, in a pre-COVID world, I would probably tell you a completely different answer. Now, I can tell you that I learned just how crucial investing in disaster infrastructure and in education is to the state. With online learning, schools face a host of equity issues. How do you ensure students are safe at home, that they have the technology and the support to be able to learn online, that they are able to have access to nutritious food. It's the responsibility of our office to act as a conduit between the State and the local communities so that we can help solve some of these inequities. Essentially, I learned that there's always more work to do. We can always do better. That's why I went to law school.”
Dominican helped her along the way. Samantha is convinced she made the right choice entering the School of Liberal Arts and Education (LAE). She was asked what the best thing was that she took from her Dominican experience that she has applied to her career and her life.
“I think the most important, or one of the most important lessons I learned was how to apply concepts learned in class and critically engage with them in a larger context. Gigi (now Dean of LAE) used to give an assignment at the end of each semester, where she would have the class watch a movie that, on the surface, seemed completely unrelated to international studies. After we watched the film, she would have us relate concepts that we had learned throughout the semester back to the film we had just watched. Her theory was that if we could apply the teachings from class to any ordinary scenario, we would know that we had truly learned and mastered the material.
“I can never watch the Dark Knight Rises again without thinking of kangaroo courts, but I understand and appreciate the goals of her method. If I can take the teachings from her, and Alison, and Christian, and from all the opportunities I had in college, and apply them to a broader social context, I think that is evidence that my Dominican experience had value. So, that's what I tried to do in my last few years in the workforce, and that is what I hope to do now that I start this new journey.”