Defining Moment: Thanks to donor, program prepares first-generation students for law school

March 25, 2022

Prepped for success

by Frank Garza

Prior to starting at the St. Mary’s University School of Law, first-year J.D. student Majestad Barragan did not know who or what to expect in her classes. 

Barragan grew up in Dallas and completed her undergraduate studies in Oklahoma. She thought it was unlikely she’d meet students with similar backgrounds. When she heard about the First-Generation Law Student Pre-1L Boot Camp, she quickly signed up. 

“It gave me a chance to dip my toes into the new learning environment,” Barragan said. “It made my first year not so scary and eased the anxiety I had coming into law school.” 

“By St. Mary’s making it easier for a first-generation student to obtain an exemplary education, it took the most important first step in changing the trajectory of their lives.”

Garrett Clayton

Barragan was among nearly 50 students who were introduced to the Socratic method of asking and answering questions, law faculty and staff, and the classroom experience prior to law school. They even covered two cases: Pennoyer v. Neff and International Shoe Co. v. Washington

The program, first piloted last summer, was created by the Office of Law Success and made possible through a $100,000 donation from Garrett Clayton (J.D. ’06) of Houston, chief executive officer of AmCap Mortgage and founding partner of Clayton & Ramirez, P.L.L.C.  

Meeting the challenge 

Though Clayton was not a first-generation law student, he recognized how challenging that experience can be.  

“By St. Mary’s making it easier for a first-generation student to obtain an exemplary education, it took the most important first step in changing the trajectory of their lives,” Clayton said. “I loved my time at St. Mary’s, and I want to help as many future students create memories and bonds.” 

Garrett Clayton

Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Zoe Niesel, J.D., and Assistant Dean for Law Success Afton Cavanaugh (J.D. ’13) led instruction with two goals: to give all participants a picture of law school life and help students connect with one another. 

“Many of the students now study together. They move around campus together. They all have somebody who they know. And that goes back to the boot camp,” Cavanaugh said.  

Cavanaugh, who was a first-generation student, understands firsthand how much of an impact support can have. 

“For many, that support is the difference between potentially deciding law school is not for them or continuing through to become a force in the legal profession,” he said. 

Guiding and connecting 

First-year J.D. student Emilia Garanzuay initially did not know what to expect from her law school professors. The mock classroom experience during the boot camp was especially helpful, she said. 

“Just going into orientation the following week, I felt like I had a leg up,” Garanzuay said. “You got to raise your hands and ask questions about anything, like, ‘How soon should I start reading? Should I buy used books or e-books?’ It’s all those technical questions you don’t really get to ask.” 

Thanks to Clayton’s donation, the Office of Law Success was able to hire students to provide guidance throughout the boot camp and host socials for participants to connect with one another and law school faculty and staff. 

“You can’t overstate the value of giving a contribution to this type of programming,” Cavanaugh said.

Discover More Defining Moments

Defining Moment: St. Mary’s shares gratitude for a mission made real

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Donors to the St. Mary's Law campaign endowed transformational scholarships and professorships, funded cutting-edge facilities, enabled first-generation student programming and propelled law success efforts.   

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Coll Bramblett (J.D. ’80) applied to many law schools, but only the St. Mary’s University School of Law gave him a chance to become a lawyer, so he took it.

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John R. Courtney Sr. (B.A. ’61, J.D. ’67) encourages any student looking for a great leadership and educational opportunity to join the Army ROTC at St. Mary’s University.

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Steven Michael Peña Sr. (J.D. ’94), a partner at Davidson Troilo Ream & Garza, PC in San Antonio, feels law students who underperform are easily overlooked. 

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For Erich Ferrari (J.D. ’06), founder and principal attorney of Ferrari & Associates, the St. Mary’s University School of Law was the starting point for developing his practice as a sanctions lawyer. 

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The emphasis on the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, according to Martin D. Beirne (J.D. ’69), means that St. Mary’s University focuses on developing the whole person, not just handing students a degree.

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