Experiences as an Immigrant, First-Gen Student Drive Sabrina Mato ’24 To Help Others

Sabrina Mato

“As an immigrant, I recognize the immense privilege I have of learning the law and using it to benefit others during law school has been really rewarding,” Sabrina Mato ’24 said. Photo by Julia Davis

October 4, 2022

After studying abroad and working for the U.S. Department of Justice, Sabrina Mato ’24 found her calling: to use her University of Virginia law degree to help immigrants and first-generation college students like herself.

Mato was born in Güines, Cuba, and immigrated to Miami with her family when she was 10. She earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and international affairs from Florida State University.

At UVA Law, Mato serves on the editorial board of the Virginia Journal of International Law and as professional development co-chair of Virginia Law Women, vice president of the Latin American Lawyers Organization, outreach chair of Virginia Law First-Generation Professionals and a Peer Advisor. She also worked at Just Neighbors for Alternative Spring Break in March.

In our occasional series “Star Witness,” Mato discusses her interest in immigration law and how she wants to build bridges between student communities at UVA.

Tell us something about your life before law school.

I ended up in law school after a journey of trial and error. I started as a pre-med major in college and quickly realized it was not my passion. I shifted to studying political science and international affairs, primarily because of the tangible work I got to do. I worked with an international nonprofit in Assam, India, through a summer school program and researched the accessibility of political education in rural areas of the country. That experience prompted my interest in international work and in serving as a resource to others. 

I was able to study abroad in London for a semester and learned about various political systems in Europe. That led me to live in Spain during my junior year summer, where I worked for international law firms while researching the Catalonian Independence Movement for my senior thesis. These experiences sparked my understanding of how different perspectives fit together.  

My life before law school consisted of taking opportunities as they came along. It was (and still is) about embracing uncertainty and learning something new.  

Why law school?

During my last year of college, I interned at the State Public Defender’s Office and realized how much I enjoyed being an advocate for clients. After graduation, I worked as a legal assistant at a Florida law firm and then as a paralegal at the Department of Justice. At the DOJ, I got to work in the Immigrant and Employee Rights Section of the Civil Rights Division. I absolutely loved it. It was the first time I saw myself working in the legal field because of the impact the law had on clients from my similar background. I saw how legal knowledge could positively impact the lives of immigrants and underprivileged communities and decided to apply to law school. 

What are some of your goals with LALO and VLW?

My goal for LALO is to create a stronger Latin American community, not only through professional and academic resources but also through social activities. A huge part of Latino/Hispanic culture is bonding through delicious food and music, and I hope to bring a piece of that to UVA Law. My hope is that future Latino students feel comfortable and embraced on this campus. 

As professional co-chair for VLW, my goal is to introduce our members to female professionals in the field. I am organizing two firm lunches and one public service panel to help students network and build these relationships early on. I know, as a minority woman and first-generation professional, how incredibly valuable it can be to have a strong support system and our organization wants to create and foster these connections.

I also hope to serve as a bridge between LALO, VLW and First-Generation Professionals. The school has incredible programing and having someone communicate between them is helpful. 

Describe your most interesting law school experience.

My favorite experience was a recent appearance before an immigration judge in a removal proceeding. I was able to appear under the supervision of the Immigration Law Clinic. The case is still in progress, but working with an asylee client has been incredible. As an immigrant, I recognize the immense privilege I have of learning the law and using it to benefit others during law school has been really rewarding.

What’s next for you?

I will be joining a law firm in Washington, D.C., as a 2023 summer associate. I am interested in government litigation and white-collar work. I also hope to continue working on pro bono immigration cases throughout my career. 

Intangibly, I would love for my degree to serve as a sign of possibility for other first-generation immigrant students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. It is easy to doubt yourself when you don’t relate to or see others like you in the field. I hope my story, and law degree, will help someone see themselves at UVA Law.

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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