The student body at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law is vibrant. It’s full of individuals from all walks of life—whether they’re non-traditional, fresh out of undergrad, or starting a second career. Veterans bring particularly unique experiences to the Law School community. And no one knows that more than SBA President Alicia Crawford, current JD candidate and U.S. Navy Veteran.
Crawford attended the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and served active duty for eight years before starting her law career last fall. Here, she discusses how her military experience prepared her for law school (something she was surprised to learn), how she plans to use her law degree, and how race and gender informs how she sees and interacts with world.
How was the transition from military life to student life?
It was a very quick turnaround. I left active duty in July 2021 and started law school in August 2021. I would say that transition is still ongoing. But one of the really great skillsets I acquired in the military was being able to adapt and overcome. I’ve just been taking things as they come.
How has your time at academy and in the military prepared you for law school?
I had no idea that the Naval Academy followed by the military would have prepared me so well for law school: having discipline, being able to put one foot in front of the other even when life is really difficult. That’s something that I got directly from the military and it has aided me in my first year. Being able to discern that there’s a list of things that you have to get done and there’s only so many hours in the day. How do you prioritize? How do you start to knock things out? Where can you rely on, as we say in the Navy, shipmates who can assist where you’re not as strong? That’s a skillset that I used during my 1L year and I believe helped me to get elected as SBA president.
What makes Northwestern Pritzker Law such a good community for veterans?
I like to say we are small but mighty community that I would like to see grow. I think it has to do with the fact that at Northwestern, students are a little bit older. It’s not uncommon for people to have some work experience before coming to law school. That helps. I would also say the camaraderie of the Northwestern culture. The larger Northwestern community seems to be more collaborative than what I’ve heard about other schools. I think that aids in Northwestern being a great place for veterans to come and make that transition to a civilian life.
On your campaign flyer for SBA president, you said you wanted to “ensure everyone is seen and heard and equitable solutions are created for the things you care about the most.” Can you expound on that?
I struggled at the Naval Academy and I also struggled in the Navy as a Black queer woman. Historically, people like me haven’t been represented in those environments. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed in 2012 when I was at the Naval Academy, and culture didn’t change overnight. I always had this feeling of “I don’t fit in.” It wasn’t until a little bit later in my career, actually part of the reason I came to law school, that I realized and was able to put words to the things I’d been feeling and experienced. I was never the problem. The problem was with the larger society and the way that we see people who may not fit into the box that we think they should be fitting into. Coming to law school, I saw some of those same things, especially talking to some of my classmates. The feeling of not doing well enough compared to our classmates or not feeling like we fit the box of what a big law firm or public interest lawyer should look like.
You wanted to allow more inclusivity.
Just wanting to create more community, greater sense of community, wanting to say, “You know what? There’s a place at the table for you. And if there’s not a place at the table for you, guess what? We can pull up some seats, we can make space.” SBA president was probably the only position where I could bring my full self. It was SBA where I could have each of those identities represented and then be able to advocate on behalf of that. Take what I learned in the military and bring that here. In a leadership role, it’s not really about what I want or what I think is good. It’s about what my team thinks is good. Having that skillset seems like a perfect fit and something I hope I can share with my classmates.
You’re a student who lives at the intersection of so many different identities. You’re a Black woman, you’re queer, you live with a disability, and you’re a veteran. How have those identities shaped you as a person, and as a future lawyer?
I think the most succinct way of explaining it is that it allows me to have empathy for a wide range of people. I have experienced a lot of things, so just being able to empathize and offer grace to myself and people that I encounter. It also plays into the military skillset, specifically being an officer. It was actually within that setting early on that I realized I was able to go between these worlds. I was able to translate and I was able to advocate because my sailors trusted me because I was an outsider like them in the officer corps. At least I felt that. But then when I was in the officer ward room, I was able to truly advocate and say, “These are what our sailors need, this is what they’re saying.” I’ve also had to be able to do that in my personal life. So now to do that as a law student and to carry whatever skills I’m learning now into my next step, my legal career is pretty exciting and I hope I can really sharpen and hone those skills.
As you look forward to your graduation in 2024, what would you like to do with your degree?
I have ideas, but I’ve also learned that life has a way of taking you where it’s going to take you. I’m looking at how to make the world more accessible, more equitable — really just empowering people. Maybe I do it with my law degree or maybe I just do it because I’m in specific spaces because of my law degree. I really just want to be able to use my life as an example for what others can achieve. If someone would’ve told me that I’d be in law school at a T-14 school living in Chicago, I’d laugh at them. Yet I’m here. I had no idea that this is where life was going to lead me. I was fortunate enough to have people in my life who supported me, who championed me, who inspired me before I even knew that I needed to be inspired. I just hope I can in some way do that for others.
What advice would you give veterans who are also considering law school?
Do it. I would also say for people who may be considering making that transition from active duty to not, that it is a scary transition, but your training has prepared you well. While the unknown is scary, you’re more prepared than you think. I’m having the time of my life. I am learning how the world works in a broader context, which is building off learning how the military works as an institution. I’m now understanding the laws behind our world, it’s fun and it’s exciting. I can’t speak for every law school experience. I can speak specifically to Northwestern, that I still feel like I get the good parts of the military: the camaraderie, the teamwork. I’m also working hard. I like to work and I like to see the fruits of my labor. I’m getting to do that with just seeing how my mind is thinking through things, expanding, and neuro pathways are beginning to form. That’s really cool and is also very nerdy, but I like it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.