Multilingual Globetrotter Charts Course to Law School

Nicole Banton ’21 Discusses Studying Abroad, Becoming an Advocate for Others
Nicole Banton

“I realized that a law degree would enable me to have a direct impact, helping people who face challenges similar to the ones I have experienced,” Nicole Banton ’21 said. Photo by Julia Davis

November 15, 2019

Nicole Banton, a second-year law student at the University of Virginia School of Law, is a polyglot — that is, a person who speaks many languages.

Banton, a native of Silver Spring, Maryland, has studied five languages other than English.

She scored maxima cum laude on the National Latin Exam, Level IV. She also knows Italian, Spanish, ancient Greek and Korean.

Banton graduated from George Washington University with a degree in international affairs. At UVA Law, she serves as vice president of Virginia Law Women and firm relations chair for the Black Law Students Association.

In our occasional series “Star Witness,” Banton talks about being an SEO Fellow, choosing a J.D. over a Ph.D., and studying cultures and languages abroad.

Why law school?

After college, I applied for international relations graduate programs, hoping to build a research-focused career that would enable me to engage with a variety of topics. I planned to focus on democratization, nationalism and authoritarian governments. I was admitted to several international relations programs, enrolled at Johns Hopkins SAIS, and even planned to pursue a Ph.D. But then I changed course. 

I have experienced firsthand the impact that lawyers can have on their clients’ lives. I realized that a law degree would enable me to have a direct impact, helping people who face challenges similar to the ones I have experienced. I came to law school because I believed that earning a J.D. would provide me with the skill set to become an effective advocate.

Tell us something else about your life before law school.

The summer before law school, I worked in New York City as an SEO Law Fellow at a large law firm. [SEO Law Fellowships offer talented incoming law school students of color the opportunity to work at a top law firm during the summer before law school.] I don’t have attorneys in my family, and the SEO Law Fellowship Program was my introduction to large law firms. Thanks to SEO, I have had invaluable opportunities to learn from dozens of diverse attorneys who are carving out successful paths in the legal profession. I worked with the diversity and inclusion team to organize the firm’s internship program for diverse high school students and volunteered with the firm’s LGBTQ inclusion network during NYC Pride Week. It was inspiring to experience the legal community’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, and to learn how I can contribute. 

Before that, I worked for three years at a legal technology company in Washington, D.C., and at an international affairs graduate school in the Boston area. 

What’s something your classmates don’t know about you?

I studied abroad five times in four countries (Italy, Israel, China and Spain) and studied five languages (Italian, Spanish, Latin, ancient Greek and Korean).

I enjoy learning languages and finding commonalities with people despite language and cultural barriers. Growing up, I traveled to Jamaica often to visit family there. This sparked an interest in travel and intercultural exchange. In high school and in college, I sought out as many study abroad opportunities and scholarships as I possibly could.

Tell us more about your travels abroad.

Traveling and studying languages taught me to embrace new challenges and to find commonalities with people with vastly different backgrounds and experiences — two skills that I have used often as a law student. As the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant, intercultural exchange was a central part of my bicultural upbringing and the foundation of my interest in history and international relations. My exploration beyond Jamaica and the U.S. started with Latin, and I learned more languages as I traveled. I studied Latin for six years, starting in middle school because I had heard that Latin was the key to learning many languages quickly.

When I applied for the first study abroad opportunity, a yearlong classics program in Italy, I knew absolutely no Italian. My initial oral placement test included questions as basic as, “What time is it?” I didn’t understand a word, and I failed. Despite the initial failure, I had no choice but to learn quickly because some of our core second-semester classes were taught only in Italian. So, I seized every opportunity to improve, including volunteering in the community, speaking only in Italian. It was intimidating to be in a completely new environment at age 16, but I had an incredibly supportive host family. After a few months, I was sitting in on upper-level Italian classes and (much to my surprise) doing well on the upper-level Italian exams.

Connecting with and learning from people with different perspectives is one of my favorite parts of traveling. I have met incredibly kind, generous people, including a farmer and his family up in the Rif Mountains who hosted me and my classmates for lunch and Fudan University students who took the time to show me their favorite parts of Shanghai. I have encountered difficult situations as well as positive ones, but I think that all of my experiences and travels have shown me that I can always learn from another person, no matter how different our experiences and perspectives might be. I hope that this open mindset and ability to find common ground will transfer when I start working with clients. I hope to connect with clients and peers despite different backgrounds and perspectives.

What’s next for you?

I plan to work at Hogan Lovells next summer.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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