On September 29, Northwestern Pritzker School of Law hosted an installation ceremony, celebrating five faculty member’s scholarly accomplishments and their appointments to endowed professorships: ...
Serah Lawal (JD ’25), a 1L student from New York City, knew Northwestern Pritzker School of Law was her dream school when she made a visit to campus in April 2022. After a conversation with members of the Black Law Student Association, she knew she had found where she belongs.
Lawal is the inaugural recipient of the Joyce Hughes Scholarship, established in 2021 in honor of Professor of Law Emeritus Joyce A. Hughes. The scholarship is funded by a generous group of Northwestern Pritzker Law alumni and friends: Courtney Armstrong (JD-MBA ’97), Naima Walker Fierce (JD ’96), Sharon Bowen (JD-MBA ’82), Toni Bush (JD ’81), Joe Richardson (JD ’96), and Dean Hari Osofsky. The scholarship provides financial aid to first-generation law students, students who will diversify their class, or those interested in pursuing academic scholarship focused on the underrepresentation of various populations.
In 1971, Professor Hughes became the nation’s first Black female tenure-track law professor at a white majority school, 20 years after such a person was a professor at a predominantly Black law school. Professor Hughes joined the Law School faculty in 1975 and became the first Black woman to be tenured in any department at Northwestern when she received tenure in 1979.
We spoke to Lawal about her aspirations, Professor Hughes’s work, and how it feels to be a first-generation law student.
What inspired you to come to Northwestern Pritzker Law?
I’m from New York City, and I decided to come to Northwestern after I came for a visit. I couldn’t come for Admitted Students Week due to scheduling conflicts, but I was able to come the week after that. I got the chance to really talk to a lot of the Black Law Student Association students, and I felt at home. I knew that Northwestern was the space I wanted to be in.
Were you familiar with Joyce Hughes’s work?
Before I learned about the scholarship, I did not know anything about her work. I’ve seen her in pictures. That hallway in [the Law School] with her photos up, I’ve seen that, and I read it. I was like, ‘Wow, this is really amazing.’ I connected the dots a few weeks later. When Sarah [Zimmerman, director of Major Gifts and Annual Giving] asked me to participate in this [interview], I was like, I’ll just get back to them so I can do more research on her. So I was able to read up on her. I was just really amazed with all the information that I had gathered. I was like, ‘Wow, this is someone I want to live up to and be like, because who wouldn’t?’ She’s an amazing trailblazer.
Who are some of your biggest inspirations?
I think one would be Michelle Danvers. This is someone personal to me. She’s the director of the TRiO Program. She was the director when I was a student in middle school. She was such a mentor to me. She helped me, walked me through the high school process, college process, and all of that. I just really looked up to her. She was a Black woman doing the work that was necessary for a younger woman like me to excel, to understand, and to believe that I’m capable of doing the things that I wanted to. Having her beside me during such foundational years was really, really crucial for me in such a pivotal moment in my life.
What type of law are you interested in?
I’m very open right now, but I am leaning towards public interest or litigation work.
What are your aspirations as you move through law school, and as you get into your career after you graduate?
I think for me, it’s just the ability to have an impact on my community and on folks that look like me. I know just being a woman of color and being a first-generation college student and law school student, it’s been really, really challenging. And just also mirroring the work that Professor Hughes does, just being able to prepare the way for people who are coming after me. I’m more interested in going back to my community and helping people through the legal system so it doesn’t have to be such a daunting and difficult process for Brown and Black folks.
As you mentioned, you are a first-generation law student. How does that feel for you?
It’s been challenging. Just coming straight from undergrad, it wasn’t an easy transition. A bunch of my peers, they have parents, family members who are lawyers, or they know lawyers. The first lawyer I knew was [in] my senior year of college. I can’t just pick up the phone and ask some questions. It’s hard for them to relate to the challenges and struggles that I’m having at school. So, being a first-gen student, not being able to have my family members, my parents understand what I’m going through, it’s not an easy thing to process through on my own. But it’s also setting this new chapter for my family and for my kids, that they wouldn’t have to be the first, because I’m working on that journey now. That’s really crucial. That’s something I keep in mind. It’s difficult, but I’m paving the way. I’m making a blueprint for those that are going to do this after I do it.
To support this fund, please make a gift on the Professor Joyce A. Hughes Endowed Scholarship’s donation page.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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