Community college students form an important part of the Harvard Law School community. Meet Josh and Saeed, two students at HLS who attended community college before transferring to a four-year institution. We hope this post inspires more community college graduates to consider HLS.
Josh and Saeed, tell us about your path to Harvard Law.
Saeed: My journey began in Karachi, Pakistan. I moved to Southern California when I was very young. I joined the wrestling team in high school, which was transformative for me. My grades weren’t as strong in high school, and I wasn’t as on top of the college application process. I went to community college, which sometimes has a negative stigma. But I saw how much the faculty cared and how great the resources and students were in community college. Because you have smaller classes, it is not as intimidating to talk to your professors and build relationships. From community college, I transferred to UCLA and was able to find a balance that enabled me to excel academically while also remaining involved in campus activities. I ended up revitalizing the Pre-Law Transfer Society at UCLA, which hosts a ton of amazing events to this day. After UCLA, I pursued my interest in fashion by working at Louis Vuitton. I got an interview for that job from a cold email, which just goes to show that you can take risks and chances and they might pay off. As the great Wayne Gretsky once said, “ You miss 100% of the shots you do not take.” Do not be afraid of failure!
Josh: I definitely went through a non-traditional school experience. My parents were uncertain whether I’d even go to college, but I found a great place at Moorpark College, our local community college. That’s where I hit my stride. I had amazing teachers and got involved with the speech and debate team, which changed my life. It was where I really found my niche. After graduating with an associate’s degree in history and sociology, I transferred to Berkeley. I’ve wanted to be a lawyer since I was 12 or so. A few different threads really pulled me in that direction. First, my grandfather, who is my favorite person in the world was a lawyer, so I was inspired by him. Second, I really like arguing, and everyone around me said “you like arguing so much; you should be a lawyer!” I was like I can get paid to argue; what a dream. Finally, as someone with autism who has been fortunate enough to have these amazing opportunities, I have felt a profound sense of duty to be an advocate for marginalized identities—like disabled persons such as myself. Given my skillset, I felt that being a civil rights litigator was the best path to fulfill that duty.
In what ways did your community college experience prepare you well for law school?
Josh: I feel that the community college professors are there to educate students. Research universities often do not have the same emphasis on teaching. My professors helped me develop a deep knowledge base and grow as a student, which served me well at Berkeley and now at HLS. Community college taught me the value of going for goals. A professor here at HLS told me that the faculty here really like community college graduates in law schools because we are strivers. Community college grads bring a special drive to HLS; we are very active here.
Saeed: Community college is a great way to transition into higher education and figure out what you want to do. And I agree that the professors at community colleges are really focused on teaching and seeing their students achieve their dreams. I keep in touch with a majority of the professors I had during community college, even to this day. While I had been interested in the legal profession since doing mock trial at Corona Centennial High School, my exploration in community college reinforced my interest in becoming an attorney. Community college also drastically improved my writing and reading comprehension skills, two traits that are necessary to excel on the LSAT, in law school, and as a practicing attorney!
Josh: From my experience, community colleges are incredibly diverse, especially compared to elite four-year universities. This helps give opportunities to people that, unfortunately, otherwise wouldn’t have them, such as myself. It also allows people while they are there to interact with a broad range of people learning from each other’s experiences, growing together, and thinking about things in ways you otherwise would not have. The unique opportunities community college provides to diverse individuals help bring often unheard perspectives to the people at the law school and helps you think about how the law and actions of the legal profession affect people in ways you otherwise would not have.
Saeed: And when we say diversity, that doesn’t just mean ethnic or racial diversity. Community colleges have students of all different ages and stages of life. I found that valuable as a student.
What do community college students uniquely offer to HLS and the legal profession generally?
Josh: As a lawyer, you are an advocate for your client. If you do not have empathy for your client and their life experience, you won’t be as effective as an advocate. Community college graduates encompass a breadth of life experience, and we’re used to interacting with lots of different kinds of people. That makes us effective advocates and adds so much understanding to the legal profession. To paraphrase Justice Kagan—and perhaps apply her statement more broadly—it’s incredibly important that the U.S. legal profession is reflective of the U.S. It is difficult to trust a profession that is in charge of advocating for your rights if that profession is unwilling or unable to have people like you in it. Given that so many people across the country come from these diverse backgrounds, who went to or currently go to community college, for the legal profession to be truly representative, it needs community college students. It needs community college students at these elite institutions to bring their unique perspectives to the discussions about what the law or legal profession is and how they should be.
Saeed: Perseverance and resilience. You know that someone who came from a community college has handled difficulties and obstacles. Instead of floundering, they fought through those difficulties and achieved their goals. Community college students know what it’s like to have doubters and people who don’t believe in them. I hope that having community college students here at HLS excelling in a variety of sectors showcases how community colleges are a pipeline to get to a place like HLS.
While there are a number of community college grads in the HLS student body, most students attended a four-year institution directly from high school. How do your HLS classmates react when they learn you attended a community college?
Saeed: Honestly, it’s almost looked at as something they’re amazed by. I think it’s made my classmates who didn’t attend community college think differently about them and respect them more.
Josh: I have thought about this a lot, especially looking at the legal profession. Institutional representation matters. It matters to interact with people who have had different experiences than you so that each of you can grow and learn from each other’s experiences. Once I got to HLS, people in my life started to look at my community college experience differently than they had before. And it has actually been a huge asset in the public interest job search, which is not something I’d even thought about before.
Saeed: When interviewing for firm jobs, I was told to make sure to mention that I went to community college because law firms value this inclusion. They like the trajectory of growth and the signal that you are a fighter. I think having community college on my resume is advantageous, not only on campus at HLS but in terms of professional opportunities. I take pride in my identity as a student who went to community college, and I strive to advance a positive representation of this identity through my academic and professional activities.
Are there challenges or benefits you faced in preparing your law school application materials as a community college graduate?
Josh: Securing letters of recommendation can be a challenge after you transfer to a four-year school since you have only two years of experience with your professors. It’s helpful to hit the ground running junior year in terms of developing relationships with professors. I took multiple classes with professors and was intentional about developing those relationships. I didn’t ask any of my community college professors for recommendation letters, but I sense that would have been viewed positively by admissions officers. I believe community college professors write strong letters because they focus on teaching.
Saeed: I think the biggest challenge is the first semester or quarter after you transfer. It will be a challenge once you arrive at your four-year institution. I recommend focusing on the academic transition first, then moving into extracurricular activities afterward. Keep your academics at the forefront.
Josh: I just thought of one benefit of transferring on the law school application process – you have to write an application essay to apply to a four-year institution. I drew on that when I started drafting my law school personal statement. Definitely ask for feedback on your essays. Mine improved when I sought advice. I swear I was asking everyone and their mother to look at my essays and personal statement.
Saeed: One benefit of attending community college is that it taught me not to be intimidated to go to office hours. Professors are there to help you in both your academics and professional opportunities. One UCLA professor told me I was one of the first students to come to office hours to review my exam answers. Professors love students who are genuine and strive to learn. I think the relationships I built over those office hours probably helped strengthen my letters of recommendation.
What advice do you have for community college students considering law school?
Josh: Work very hard to get into a four-year institution. Enjoy your time there. Build social groups. Focus on your grades, obviously, but make sure also to utilize your undergraduate experience. I would also recommend pursuing some work experience after undergrad. While in law school take the opportunity to do things you are passionate about, learn from your fellow students, and build meaningful relationships. I learned fairly quickly during 1L that the LLMs are especially a blast to hang out with! You only get to do law school once; make it count!
Saeed: As Josh mentioned, staying on top of your grades is very important, as good academic performance will set the stage for a seamless transition into a 4-year university when you transfer. However, this does not mean that you should always be buried in your books. Get involved with extracurricular activities in community college and maintain a balanced lifestyle. It will help you learn good leadership skills, as well as conflict management and teamwork. I really carried those skills on to my time at UCLA and HLS. (Talking about conflict management and teamwork, I heavily encourage any admit going to HLS to take the “Negotiations” course offered in J-Term & the Spring session(s), as it has been an extremely valuable experience for me, with practicably applicable strategies regarding negotiation!)
Josh: I used to regard Ivy League institutions with suspicion—to put it mildly. But even the Ivy League grads here do not have the arrogance or elitism that I had worried about. My classmates are the most amazing, kind individuals, and our law school is incredibly diverse. I hope more community college students will consider HLS in the future. Know that you are valued here.
Saeed Ahmad is a current 2L at HLS who attended Norco College and the University of California, Los Angeles. Saeed is involved with the Harvard Association for Law and Business, Student Government, and the Muslim Law Students Association.
Joshua Alpert is a current 2L who attended Moorpark College and the University of California, Berkeley. Josh is involved in the Board of Student Advisers, the Disabled Law Students Association, the Harvard Human Rights Journal, Civil Rights–Civil Liberties Law Review, American Constitution Society, and Harvard Defenders.