From tragedy to triumph of law school scholarship
By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau
Karisa Neels lived in a small town in South Dakota with her mom who works in a cardboard-box factory and gave advice to her daughter.
“’Don’t do what society says you should do. Stay strong in who you are.’ That really got me where I am today,” said Neels, a Grand Canyon University senior who recently received a full scholarship to New England Law in the Justice Sandra Day O’Connor Honors Program.
Her mom, Monica Neels, cried during the good-news call.
“I was over-the-top excited,” Monica Neel said. “She is just a very strong young lady. She is going to make things happen.”
They didn’t have much money and had been through a lot of family strife. Yet her daughter accomplished what Kevin Walling says is a rare feat — a full scholarship to law school, where tuition averages between $130,000 and $160,000.
Neels is the second GCU student in the past year to earn a full scholarship, which the Chair of Justice Studies, Government and History said is partially the result of supportive faculty, courses that are applicable to law school, skilled advisors on law school entrance exams and internship opportunities.
Neels’ triumph was also borne of personal tragedy.
“I grew up poor,” she said. “My dad was around when I was little but was super abusive, and he left and is in prison now. After that, it was just me and my mom.”
She dove into school work and stayed close with her mom.
“I’m glad I escaped through education and not drugs and alcohol like some other kids who had that upbringing,” Neels said.
When she visited GCU, it was tough to tell her mom that she wanted to go so far away, “but when I landed in Phoenix it was 75 degrees, and there was a blizzard in South Dakota.
“She was super supportive: ‘You do you. Spread your wings. Fly. You’ll do fine.’ “
Her mother said, “She’s had her own mind since she was a little bitty girl. I told people the only way she learns is if she does it herself.”
Neels entered GCU with a desire to start a medical career but quickly switched to Government with an Emphasis in Legal Studies after a professor in her international relations class brought so much life to the course it didn’t feel like a mere slog through a textbook, she said.
And she recalled her skills in deciding on legal studies.
“I’m a really good arguer. I argued with my mom, with my teacher, with my friends. I argued with basically everyone,” she said. “Even if I was wrong, I would argue a little bit longer because I enjoyed it.”
Neels did more than argue. She helped pay her way with jobs as a hostess, server, bartender and nanny while taking classes and heeding the advice of professors to bulk up her resume with internships. She interned with the Republican Party of Arizona and Superior Court in Maricopa County and lobbied for The Humane Society of the U.S. at the Arizona State Capitol, among others.
“These types of opportunities can help whet student ambitions and give them a vision of the kind of success they could have at law school and beyond,” Walling said.
Neels graduated from GCU in April and said she fielded four scholarship offers to law schools but chose New England Law in Boston because of its strong tax attorney program. Her reasoning came from the head and the heart.
“A lot of times tax attorneys are the more wealthy attorneys because it is such a dry part of law,” she said. “I want to be able to be successful enough as a tax attorney that I will have money to work pro bono for domestic-violence issues.
“Dad was abusive – bad. (My mom) never felt like she could do anything about it because we had no money and nobody to listen to her.
“It’s another reason I argued a lot, too. I would argue not only with her, but for her.
“When she did look into a way to get out of the situation we were in, she realized it’s not cheap to get attorneys. I want to be that voice for people who don’t think their voice is strong enough or they can’t afford a voice.
“I want to do it for free for those that need the help.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.
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