Sierra Sánchez outside the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at...

Sierra Sánchez outside the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University in Hempstead on Wednesday. Sánchez says Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of her personal and professional heroes.  Credit: Howard Schnapp

When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg graduated from Columbia Law School in 1959, she couldn’t get hired by a New York law firm despite being tied for first in her class. But Ginsburg went on to mow down barriers for future generations of women like Sierra Sánchez, a second-year law student at Hofstra University’s Maurice A. Deane School of Law.

And in turn, Sánchez is continuing Ginsburg’s work by fighting for justice and equality — and Sánchez is promoting the belief that it's OK for women of color to take up space. 

Sánchez has been named the New York State Bar Association’s inaugural Ruth Bader Ginsburg Memorial Scholarship winner, a $5,000 award to be given annually to a second- or third-year law student whose work honors Ginsburg’s legacy.

The deans of New York’s 15 law schools submit an applicant for consideration of the award and one is chosen, according to the bar association. The organization will present the award to Sánchez during a meeting Saturday morning at the New York Hilton Midtown in Manhattan.

Sánchez, 25, of Kew Gardens, Queens, called Ginsburg one of her personal and professional heroes and said receiving the distinction had made her family, including her Dominican-born abuela, proud.

“It is just so beyond what she expected for her family, so it does feel like a huge accomplishment for me,” said Sánchez, whose father is of Dominican descent and whose mother is white.

Way to honor Ginsburg

New York State Bar Association President T. Andrew Brown said the organization wanted to honor Ginsburg, who died in 2020, in part because she was deeply committed to the advancement of younger attorneys and women. Sánchez was a natural fit for the first award.

“We look forward … to watching her flourish as she enters the profession and no doubt contributes greatly as we have come to expect of our student awardees,” Brown said.

Sánchez grew up in Franklin, Indiana, a small town south of Indianapolis, and is the daughter of an investigative TV reporter and a kindergarten teacher. The family teased that she would one day make a good lawyer because she was always arguing for such things as additional cookies or a later bedtime.

She began to take the joke seriously during a college internship while teaching English to asylum-seekers and immigrants.

“I started to see all the ways that the law was not just a thing in books, it was something that could be used to help people and to advocate for change in society,” she said.

After graduating from Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, she felt drawn to New York where her father Rafael grew up in the Bronx. She chose Hofstra for law school in part because of its law clinic program where she has been placed in the asylum clinic.

First in her class

Sánchez not only ranks first in her class, she also co-founded the Women of Color Collective her first year at Hofstra, a student organization for women and nonbinary students of color, and is a member of the Hofstra Law Review.

There she has impressed professors like Maryam Franzella who asked her to be a teaching assistant in her legal writing class this year. Like the late Supreme Court justice, Franzella said Sánchez was dedicated and knowledgeable, as well as approachable and compassionate.

“She's just got this combination of mind and heart and that's a rare thing to find in somebody especially so early in their career,” Franzella said. “I just think she's just going to make a real impact and inspire other women.”

Beyond academics, the bar association said it chose Sánchez for her commitment to advancing women of color and the way she described dance as a means of challenging stereotypes.

Sánchez said she began taking lessons at age 3 and was a competitive dancer through high school, which helped shape her identity.

“It was a way for me to realize that it's OK to take up space, which I think is something that is hard for women of color to internalize,” she said. “Then later on, I found other ways to take up space.”

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