First-Generation Tongan Law Student, Jullian Sekona | Breaking Pacific Islander Stereotypes
First-generation law student, Jullian Sekona, shares her experience as the only Tongan at UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. Currently employed at Barulich Dugoni and Suttmann Law Group, Inc. in San Mateo, she hopes to see more Pacific scholars pursuing law degrees in order to provide more resources and representation to their community.
Tell me about your background and where you grew up.
My parents are from Tonga (dad from Tongatapu, mom from Vava’u), and they came out to the States in the early 1990s. I was born in Salt Lake City and grew up in Bountiful, Utah. Back then there were only about 15 Tongan families. As I progressed throughout middle school and high school, I eventually joined the Early College program at Northern Utah Academy for Math Engineering and Science (NUAMES), an early college high school in Layton, Utah. In my graduating class of about 90, I was the only Polynesian high school graduate.
What motivated you to go to college?
On one hand, my parents were a huge motivator to pursue college. They pushed me and my siblings and were incredibly supportive. On the other hand, I started thinking critically about what I wanted to accomplish in life. I realized that furthering my education beyond high school would put me on a better financial and career path.
Did you feel prepared for college?
I was grateful to attend a college prep high school, so I did feel prepared for major aspects of college. I learned about different lecture styles and had a good understanding of college life. However, I did struggle preparing for advanced college classes. For that, I had to create better study habits on my own and strategize on picking classes that fit my interests, and my learning style.
After receiving my Associates of Science at Weber State University in 2014, I immediately entered my 3rd year at the University of Utah and pursued a BS in Political Science, emphasizing my studies in Law and Politics. I graduated in 2016 at the age of 20 and started law school in 2017.
Tell us about your law school experience.
It is by far the most challenging and exciting experience. To begin, it’s an academically rigorous environment that constantly pushes you to shift the way you think and problem solve. The competitive culture is a trademark of law school — it feels like it’s made for people who want to compete. In class, students shoot their hands up in the air as soon as a professor asks a question. Moving to a different state at the age of 21 presented itself as another big life adjustment. All of a sudden, I was learning how to be an adult, how to be a professional and what kind of attorney I wanted to be. It is, and continues to be, quite the learning curve.
You are the only first-generation Tongan at UC Hastings School of Law. Have you encountered any barriers?
As a first-generation law student, I’ve noticed that many of my peers come from affluent families or a family of lawyers. I don’t fit in any of those categories. I’m the only Tongan at my school, so I’ve found community amongst other brown folks. I’m actually part of the Filipino American Law Students Organization and Hastings Hui of Hawai’i student organization.
I’ve also experienced some cultural barriers. Many people don’t understand my background or where I come from. For example, I had to attend a Tongan funeral - which lasts 3-5 days - in the middle of finals. Having to explain to the records office that I needed time off was difficult. While they were very understanding, they were only understanding to an extent. I often experience this sort of cultural barrier.
What are some of your proudest achievements so far in law school?
1. Next year, I will be Co-Editor in Chief of the Hastings Women’s Law Journal. A colleague and I are looking forward to promoting scholarly articles about women’s issues and other historically marginalized communities.
2. I helped start 2 organizations: Hastings First Generation Professionals, an organization supporting first generation law students. I also started Hastings Hawaii Hui, an organization for Hawaiian and Hawaiian-based law students.
3. I interned for the the Monterey County Public Defender’s Office working for community members in need.
What is your dream career?
My dream is to either start a business or join an organization that I feel passionately about. Ultimately, I hope to be in a career where I work for an organization that I love, in a position of leadership, and where the decisions I make effectuate change for the better.
Any advice for Pacific Islander students preparing for college?
Remember that you are in full control of your environment. Surround yourself with encouraging and like-minded people seeking higher education. You will need those people to support you throughout your educational career. I am so grateful for the friends and colleagues whom I have met throughout my academic life.
And any advice for Pacific Islanders interested in law school?
I strongly recommend getting a mentor. If you want to be in this field, it requires an honest conversation with yourself. Being an attorney means representing all sorts of people, fully advocating for any client, defending a company or a person in criminal defense. You need to love this type of work. If you have the passion, be ready to dedicate a serious amount of time and effort into the work.
If there are any students interested in learning more about law school, or wanting to chat in general about higher education, feel free to reach me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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