When Samantha Jallah ’14 was thirteen, she and her family moved to the United States to escape the Liberian Civil Wars. Although they traveled back and forth for several years, Jallah admits that growing up amidst war changed her forever.
“When you come from an environment like that, you realize how precious life is,” she said.
That realization has played a major role in her path to success—most recently, her path to a Penn State Law degree.
After completing high school in the United States, Jallah enrolled at the California University of Pennsylvania to study biology. When her father lost his job, she struggled to pay tuition, and without a Green Card, she was ineligible for the aid and scholarships her classmates received. Instead, Jallah worked odd jobs – up to three at a time – in order to pay her way. After a few post-grad years working in health care, Jallah switched to banking. In just five years, she worked her way from management trainee to retail office manager/assistant vice president of Wilmington Savings Fund Society Bank in Delaware.
Still, she craved more. She began to give a career in law more thought when her family, colleagues, and customers suggested she’d be great at it. Ultimately, her decision rested on an unusual choice: she and her husband agreed she’d take the LSAT and if she did well, she’d apply to law school. If she didn’t, he’d stop asking her about law school. (He won.)
After Penn State Law accepted Jallah’s application, she learned both that she was expecting her first child and also that her father was sick. Leaving the certainty of her job in light of both events was, she said, “one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made.”
Surrounded by support
Jallah received plenty of advice to defer her acceptance to the next year. Instead, she began law school eight months pregnant. Today, she thanks Professor Larry Backer for supporting her. “To this day, I say he's the reason I'm here and one of the reasons my daughters will have a mother who's a lawyer,” she said.
"Samantha was a terrific student,” said Backer. “Once she realized that, her innate strength of character and smarts did the rest."
Legal writing Professor Mary K. Polacheck also shared a story of a student who had children in law school to prove to Jallah that she could do it. And, in preparation for the birth of her child, Jallah’s mentor Regina Mason provided reassurance while touring the hospital’s birth center with her when her husband couldn’t because of a work commitment in Philadelphia.
Jallah gave birth to her daughter just before her first final exams. She had to stay in the hospital longer than normal due to unexpected complications but with the help of the Penn State community, Jallah made it through. Staff members Mary Beth Aber and Maggie White sometimes watched her baby in their office. Sue Butterworth “worked miracles” so she could park close to her classes.
“I constantly questioned my decision to be in law school and whether the sacrifices were worth it,” she said. “It wasn’t until my second year that it clicked for me. As I studied for exams and applied my past work and life experiences, I began to grasp concepts in ways I’d never done before. It was in that moment that I realized this was exactly where I was meant to be.”
Now in her third year of law school, Jallah has worked as a legal intern at The Coca-Cola Company, a summer clerk at Weinberg, Wheeler, Hudgins, Gunn & Dial, and an intern for the Hon. Judge Calvin Scott Jr. at the Superior Court of Delaware.
“Taken together, all of these positions validated my decision to pursue law and stirred up my excitement about becoming a lawyer,” she said. “I’m excited about completing law school and rejoining the workforce,” she said. “But more importantly, I’m blessed that God ordained this experience and made it possible through the support of my husband, family, friends and the Penn State Law community.”
When not studying, Jallah works for the charitable organization, Liberian Awards, Inc., providing scholarships and mentoring services to promising young Liberians and other minorities of African descent. Jallah hopes to be the helping hand, both financially and professionally, that she didn’t always have in college.
Written by: Noelle Mateer