Class of 2024: JD Grad Bridging Linguistics and Law to Shape Future in Immigration Advocacy

May 11, 2024
Courtyard of law school during the day

Name:  Kate O’Donnell 
Degree: Juris Doctor (JD) 
Hometown: Viola, Wisconsin 
Undergrad: University of New Mexico 
Graduate School: University of Arizona

 What motivated you to pursue a degree in law, and how has that motivation evolved throughout your time in law school?  

Law school was never part of The Plan. Rather, it is the inevitable place to which all roads of my life have led. In my previous career in health access and policy, I frequently would become frustrated with the limitations of my position. I was so envious of the agency that the attorneys at our coalition partner organizations had. Thankfully, my late-30s existential crisis gave me the final push that I needed, and after three years of law school, I can now say that I have never felt more professionally or personally fulfilled.  

Kate O’Donnell 

Why did you choose University of Arizona Law?    

I have lived in the Southwest Border Region since my early 20s, and I have called Tucson my home for nearly 10 years. Because my community is here and I intend to practice immigration law here, I chose the University of Arizona. 

What area of law are you planning to specialize in, and what influenced this choice?  

I switched careers specifically to work in migration law and policy. There are many reasons for this, but a major one is that most of my twenties were defined by the pain, grief, and struggle that our inhumane immigration system inflicts upon vulnerable people and their families. I am looking forward to giving the families of my future clients some of the support, resources, and compassion that I needed so desperately when I was in their shoes.   

Which courses or professors had the most significant impact on your legal education and why?  

I could not have seen my career take the spectacular course that it has taken without the help and support of:  

Prof. Marcelo Rodríguez – My Substantial Paper advisor, my Foreign, International, and Comparative Law Research professor, and my Diplomado in Mexican Public Law and Policy mentor. Through his classes and mentorship, Marcelo gave me a space in which I could apply my enthusiasm for learning about other countries, languages, legal systems, and ways of seeing the world. 

Associate Dean Teresa Miguel-Stearns – Teresa introduced me to the Diplomado in Mexican Public Law and Policy through the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), and in so doing, she helped define both my legal education and my future legal practice. During 1L I felt like I was drowning, but by inviting me for a cup of coffee and showing me that things could get better, Teresa threw me a lifeline. 

Chris Gast – Ever encouraging, supportive, and knowledgeable, Chris helped shape my career during my time at the Law College. He included me as a TA for the 2022 and 2023 editions of the Foreign Diplomat Training Program (FDTP), in which assisted Mexican diplomats stationed all over the United States with their three U.S. law classes. Working with highly motivated and curious professionals who care deeply about the communities they serve taught me lessons I could not have gotten anywhere else.  

Prof. Shefali Milczarek-Desai – I was a TA for Prof. Desai in the FDTP and for LAW 453/553, Intro to Immigration Law and Policy. I had taught university level courses before, but Prof. Desai gave me the encouragement and mentorship that allowed me to see a future in working with migration law students.  

Prof. Stephanie Stern – Prof. Stern was my Climate Adaptation professor and supervised my research and writing of a paper that delved deep into international refugee law and climate migration. Her class, her encouragement, and this paper completely changed the way that I look at migration and climate.   

The professors and staff at the UNAM – spending two years in their Mexican law and policy classrooms opened doors for me that I never even knew existed.  

What are your immediate plans post-graduation? (e.g., joining a firm, pursuing further studies, etc.)  

After I take the Bar Exam in July, I am going to France to participate in an intensive language immersion program. When I come back, I will return to my job at Tucson immigration firm Green Evans-Schroeder, this time as an Associate Attorney.  

How do you hope to make a difference in the legal field or in society through your career? Future career plans?  

Climate-linked displacement and migration is going to be one of the great issues of my generation of lawyers. I have spent much of the last two years learning everything I can about the intersectionality of climate change, human-made vulnerabilities, and international and regional law. Time will only tell where this will lead me.  

I am also looking forward to continuing work I have already started with language access and language rights, particularly in immigration law and practice.  

Looking back on your experience at the college, what would you have done differently or what advice would you give to your younger self?  

Advice: Breathe.   

What will you miss most about University of Arizona Law and/or Tucson?   

Running into friends on campus.   

What was your favorite school experience or extracurricular activity, and why?   

I have two. The first is obtaining my Diplomado in Mexican Public Law and Policy through the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and our Law College, and then working as the Diplomado Preceptor. After having the opportunity to delve deep into another legal system, and in another language, I now ask more critical questions about the law. 

Additionally, after my 2L year I participated in the Brazilian Law Exchange Program at the Universidade de Brasília (UnB) in Brazil’s capital city. Here I was able to delve into a third system of law, and explore topics that I had never thought about such as AI Law. We also got to tour the Congress and the highest of the two Supreme Courts. Lastly, staying with a host family gave my Brazilian Portuguese a fantastic workout, and I learned a lot about everyday life in Brazil.  

What are you most proud of while at Arizona Law?   

My graduate work is in Hispanic Sociolinguistics, and I have always seen that there is a way to use linguistics to push for language policy change. During 3L, I got to see how this actually works when I took a Spanish sociolinguistics class with my former grad school professor, Ana Carvalho. With her guidance, I was able to “marry” some key aspects of U.S. asylum law with Conversational Analysis, and I designed a sociolinguistic study of the impact that language use in immigration court can have on Immigration Judge credibility determinations in asylum cases. We will pursue funding for and carry out the study in the near future.  

Message for your fellow Class of 2024:    

We did it!