Less than a year after she graduated with multiple honors from UCLA, making her the first member of her family to complete a four-year college education, Maria Nava Gutierrez ’20 prepared for one of her most daunting challenges yet. Already admitted to UCLA School of Law, Nava Gutierrez was mulling a generous offer from an Ivy League law school but was hoping to earn a full-tuition Achievement Fellowship from UCLA Law. All that stood in the way was an interview.
“I remember being very nervous about it because it was a panel interview, and the dean would be sitting on the panel. I imagined a very intimidating room with a group of strangers grilling me on my resume or qualifications,” Nava Gutierrez says. “Instead, we arranged the table in a circle, so we could all talk, and several of the interviewers had gone to UCLA Law together, so it was a bit of a reunion for them. It really showed how much camaraderie and community exists at UCLA Law, which was comforting and helped ease me into the process. It felt like the school was interested in me holistically, not just my GPA or resume.”
She aced the interview and got the fellowship.
Created with $4.2 million in donations from alumni and friends of the school, the Achievement Fellowship program provides full-tuition scholarships to students who have overcome significant obstacles to get to law school. Now entering its fifth year, the program has thus far fostered the success of 33 law students, many from underrepresented backgrounds who could not otherwise afford to pursue law school.
The first recipients earned their J.D. degrees in 2020. Along with Nava Gutierrez, they include the president of the graduating class; a winner of a prestigious Skadden Fellowship; and others headed for positions at top law firms and nonprofit organizations.
Susan Claman ’82 was one of the alumni who sat at the interview table with Nava Gutierrez, and she has been a driving force in the success of the Achievement Fellowship program.
When Dean Jennifer Mnookin first asked Claman to play a role, Claman says, “I accepted out of a general desire to help deserving law school applicants. I had no idea then about the back stories applicants would share with us – the types and extents of the adversity experienced, the strength, motivation and effort they demonstrated to reach this point.”
Now, Claman says, “I have met many amazing applicants, and Maria stands out as a prime example. She had overcome significant obstacles, excelled academically and was articulate, energetic and driven to succeed. I’m not surprised at her success at the law school and know she will excel in her legal career.”
Nava Gutierrez emigrated with her family from Mexico to Los Angeles when she was six and is a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient. She became fluent in English while her parents worked 15-hour days — without health care and under fear of deportation — so they could afford to live in a good school district. Her mother often reminded Nava Gutierrez that she would have to work “twice as hard to get even half” the recognition of peers who were citizens.
That message, along with her parents’ sacrifice, resonated. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Nava Gutierrez traveled to battleground states where she shared her immigration perspective with voters. She mentored undocumented preschoolers in Los Angeles, helping them learn English. And she excelled at UCLA, earning scholarships to pay her way, making the dean’s list, holding a leadership position with the Bruin Democrats and conducting research on the psychological challenges that undocumented college students face.
As she turned toward law school and participated in UCLA Law’s Law Fellows Program, she was once again confronted by the fact that, due to her status, she was ineligible to receive student loans. Her longtime dream “came down to either having scholarships or attending school in a different country,” she says. “When you look at that choice, it’s absolutely the case that, without the Achievement Fellowship, I would not be where I am now.”
Nava Gutierrez is due to join Venable in Los Angeles in 2021 and focus on corporate transactions. In the long term, she hopes to focus on privacy issues related to artificial intelligence — interests sparked in law school and honed during the full-time externship that she held at a Washington, D.C., think tank during her second year of law school.
“I don’t think I would have enjoyed law school or flourished as much as I did,” she says, “both personally and academically, had I attended law school anywhere else.”