UVA Law Students Boost First-Generation College Applicants With Essay Help

All 19 High Schoolers Accepted to Higher Ed Institutions
UVA Law and high school students

UVA Law students (left) offered feedback to local students (right) on their college application essays. Photo illustration by Warren Craghead

May 3, 2021

When Ariell Branson, a second-year student at the University of Virginia School of Law, learned there was an opportunity to help high schoolers from first-generation backgrounds like her own with their college application essays, she was all in.

She earned an English degree from Virginia Commonwealth University, and had successfully shared her narrative before with college admissions officials. What’s more, she could empathize with the aspiring scholars, she said.

Branson was among about a dozen UVA Law students who helped 19 Charlottesville High School students last fall with their college essays. All of the high schoolers were accepted to institutions of higher learning.

One of the students received a full ride to Syracuse University. In addition, five of the youths received the Charlottesville Promise Scholarship, which also considers students’ personal statements and provides up to $13,000 for students with financial need.

This school year was the first in which members of the Virginia Law First-Generation Professionals student group, the Student Bar Association and other interested law students partnered with the local AVID college preparatory program.

“It meant a lot to be able to offer some of the insight I have gained since I was in their position,” Branson said. “I had limited information when I was applying to colleges, and I was very grateful for the chance to help students develop their narratives.”

Chelsea Park, the AVID coordinator, said the partnership simply made sense.

“By having first-generation law students reviewing the essays of young adults who were the first members in their own family to apply to college, we were able to build a connection between individuals who could relate to one another in a unique and special way,” Park said.

Law students offered constructive feedback about how the essays could be presented in the most powerful ways.

Branson said her most useful advice was on how to weave the first-generation college student narrative into the applications, and how to emphasize why that makes for a strong, determined learner.

Charlottesville senior Adiba Khaydari was accepted to 11 schools, including Penn State and George Mason University.

“I liked how easy the process was, to just share my essay and receive helpful and nice comments on how to improve it,” Khaydari said.

Colin Lee ’21, a co-chair of the SBA Community Engagement Committee, spearheaded the effort. While the high schoolers varied in terms of their family incomes and backgrounds, some of their stories were dramatic.

“I was so impressed by the students and their willingness to share their stories,” Lee said. “With the two essays that I read, one student discussed sleeping on a bamboo bed and having a single outfit to wear each year, and the other discussed his experience as a refugee from Nepal. It really puts things in perspective as an essay reader.”

Other law students who provided essay recommendations included Armina Manning ’21, Atifah Safi ’22, Dean Dixon ’21, Kaylen Strench ’21, Juhi Desai ’23, Joseph Romero ’21, Kelli Finnegan ’22, Lindsey China ’23, Sean Blochberger ’22, Nicole Pidala ’21, Niko Orfanedes ’22 and Page Garbee ’21.

Professor Bonnie Gordon of the Department of Music, in her capacity as faculty director of UVA’s Equity Center, helped AVID by reaching out to Professor Anne Coughlin for advice on identifying law students who might want to assist. Coughlin contacted Lee because of his SBA role.

“This is a high-impact project, and we should express our gratitude to Colin and his cohorts,” Coughlin said. “They are local heroes.”

Park said she anticipates the Law School partnership will continue into the next school year.

Branson said she’s eager to help again — and noted that her mom will receive her own bachelor’s degree in two weeks.

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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