Stephanie Ulan, as an infant, poses with her father, mother, and brother
Ask Stephanie Ulan why she wants to be a lawyer and she answers without skipping a beat: it’s all about her family and the diverse New York City community she calls home.
“I’m ridiculously proud to come from Flushing, Queens” Ulan says of her roots in the borough that welcomed her mother decades ago, when she arrived there with her young son from her native Brazil. “It was the Brazilian community in Astoria, Queens that turned out to help. Friends of friends became family solely because they all came from the same country. They took my mom and brother in and gave them shelter and support. These are people I call my tias and tios to this day. I’m so proud to be a Brazilian American, and I feel like I owe so much to the Brazilian community here in New York. Putting myself in a position to give back to my community means the world to me."
As she grew, Ulan also witnessed the power of another type of community—the unions that represent hardworking New Yorkers like her mother and father. “My life wouldn’t be what it is today if it weren’t for unions,” she shares. “My dad was a member of DC37 for over 40 years, and my mom was with 1199SEIU for over a decade. Because of unions, my family never had to worry about healthcare. Because of unions, when the financial crisis hit, my dad didn’t worry about losing his job. And when my mom suffered two heart attacks and a mini stroke, she got the care she needed to survive because she was a union member.”
The strength of those childhood ties continued to carry Ulan during her college years, when she witnessed the vilification of people in her Brazilian and wider Latinx communities. Their plight inspired her to work to make a difference. “I wanted to be an immigration paralegal, but ended up working on plaintiff-side wage and hour matters instead,” she says. “The vast majority of our clients were Latinx immigrants whose labor rights had been violated. Many of them were undocumented. So, I was still helping my community, just not in the way I expected. I found the work incredibly interesting and rewarding, and it was the first time I thought about becoming a lawyer.”
A few years later, Ulan was working for a small nonprofit in Brooklyn that served asylees from Central America and Mexico when she and her coworkers decided to unionize. “We came together to fight for better wages, better healthcare, better employment protections, and more,” she recalls about that formative experience. “My coworkers noticed the joy and energy I drew from bringing people together, and they encouraged me to look into doing labor work in the future.” When that future moment arrived, Ulan enrolled at St. John’s Law with a full-tuition scholarship.
As a law student, she found yet another welcoming community. “I’m so thankful for the friends I’ve made at St. John’s, especially the badass women of color that I feel privileged to call my classmates,” Ulan says. “I’m thankful for professors who reminded me from day one that I belong here. I’m thankful for my advisor, Ashleigh Kashimawo, for not only reminding me why I love public interest, but also creating a safe space in her office for me to stop by and talk when things get overwhelming. Through student groups and events, I’ve been lucky to make friends who share similar career goals, and who I can imagine will be my colleagues long after law school is over.”
After completing her 1L year, Ulan earned a prestigious Peggy Browning Fund Fellowship and spent the summer at TakeRoot Justice, supporting the organization’s Workers Rights Project. Now, as she begins her 2L year, she can envision her future as a lawyer who serves the greater good. “Recently, my dad shared something he never told me before,” she explains. “At one point in his life he had wanted to become a labor lawyer. But life had other plans. Now I feel that I’m walking in my dad’s footsteps and completing the journey he always wanted to take. Along with helping my Brazilian community gain the voice and recognition in the United States that it deserves, nothing could be more meaningful and rewarding.”