From Peace Corps to Law School

Danila Toscano
J.D. Candidate 2013, UCI Law

On March 1, 1961, President JFK signed the executive order that established the Peace Corps program. Fifty years later, the program continues to ally Americans and foreigners. Because Peace Corps is such an individual experience, volunteers often leave their service with a very different idea of their future than when they began. As a Peace Corps volunteer (PCV) in rural El Salvador, I had no idea that three short years after my service, I would be chartering new waters at UCI’s brand new law school. In a way though, Peace Corps prepared me for this arduous adventure. In honor of Peace Corp’s 50th anniversary, I would like to share a few similarities between Peace Corps and law school, and how the former prepared me for the latter.

When I first arrived in El Salvador, I spoke mediocre Spanish. I often found myself nodding my head and laughing when it seemed appropriate, despite not understanding the conversation that was happening around me. I also began to accept that I would always sound like a fool. No matter how well I rolled my r’s and perfected my accent, I sounded like a foreigner who did not belong.

I have quickly learned that law school is no different. While I often understand my professors’ words, the exact meaning of the combined legal terms usually eludes me. I have also come to acknowledge, and even embrace my foolishness. I am perfectly accustomed to spending hours reading and preparing for class at night only to be cold-called the next day and respond with a less than scholarly answer. Luckily for me, Peace Corps prepared me for feeling inadequate.

If you have ever met a PCV, you probably already know that Peace Corps is a very lonely experience. Imagine being the only American in a rural community of 500 people; it is isolating to say the least. Furthermore, as a woman, I could not be outside of my house at night because it could tarnish my reputation as a “good” girl. I had little freedom to go places because of perpetual fear of gang activities after nightfall. I tried to suppress the nightly loneliness by reading lots of books.

Being a 1L can be pretty lonely too. Even though classmates surround you all day, you are too busy or feel too guilty to relax and enjoy each other’s company. Law school can also hinder your freedom, as weekends and evening are nothing more than extended study sessions. Reading constitutional law and torts suddenly replaces evening phone conversations with your friends and family members. Whether in El Salvador or at UCI Law, books seemed to be the theme of my evenings.

As a PCV, I often wondered if it was all worth it. I planned garbage cleanup campaigns, organized sex education classes for teenagers, and helped form a women’s business group. A year after leaving, the community was still covered in trash, five new teenage girls were pregnant, and the women’s group had dissolved. Despite this, shortly after leaving El Salvador, I felt nothing but nostalgia. I missed the daily smell of fresh tortillas cooking, my hike up the mountain to my house, the cold bucket baths, and the peace and ease of living with nothing.

While I am fairly certain that after law school I will be anything but nostalgic for civil procedure and memo writing, many lawyers have proven this theory wrong. Time and time again, I meet attorneys who tell me to enjoy law school and all the free time I have because as a lawyer, those luxuries will be gone. I have a feeling they may be forgetting some of the realities of law school. Despite this, I do believe that law school will be worth it in the end. After mentally blocking out the reading and sleepless nights, I am sure that I will look back at law school and miss my 82 classmates and being part of an innovative school. While Peace Corps may be the “toughest job you’ll ever love,” I’m hoping that being an attorney will be a close second.