Shantel Thompson left Nebraska for law school in St. Paul, Minn., with $750 to her name. Even though she had little in both finances and a support base, she was undeterred. She knew she wanted to earn a J.D. and experience life outside of Omaha, the only place she had ever lived.
She signed up for night classes at William Mitchell College of Law (now Mitchell Hamline School of Law) so that she could work during the day. With some help from her church, she stayed in a hotel one week, and then stayed with a Mitchell staff member until she was able to find an apartment close to school. For the first semester and a half, she continued to work part time at FedEx, which meant she’d finish with classes around 10 p.m. and stay up for her shift, which started at 2:30 a.m. She wasn’t falling behind in her classes, but she needed help understanding the material.
She sought out and received additional academic help, including weekly meetings with veteran faculty member Mike Steenson, and she worked hard to improve her grades. Steenson was impressed by her effort.
“Shantel overcame numerous obstacles in her study of law at Mitchell Hamline School of Law,” Steenson said. “Through her hard work and dedication to the study of law, she has become a capable and confident law student. She will be a credit to the profession.”
Thompson held a dozen or so legal-related work and volunteer positions during her time in law school, mostly dedicated to public interest law, and she logged an enormous amount of time as a volunteer with the Minnesota Justice Foundation.
Thompson, 28, was scheduled to graduate in January 2017. She has an offer to work with an attorney in Minnesota doing criminal and immigration work, but she has also applied for a two-year fellowship to return home to Omaha to work in the predominantly African-American part of the city where she grew up. Her vision is to work with legal aid to set up a medical-legal partnership that would serve not just a community center or a clinic but the whole community of North Omaha.
Law school was a struggle, Thompson said, but her perseverance paid off. “We’re taught at church that you may not understand what’s going on in your life, but you have to have faith,” she said.
Thompson is one of 25 future lawyers honored in the National Jurist’s 2017 “Law Student of the Year” feature. Find more honorees here.