What We Don’t Know

Clinical Professor of Law Thiadora “Dori” Pina has made it her mission to mentor and empower first-generation students at the law school.

What We Don’t Know
Clinical Professor of Law Thiadora “Dori” Pina has made it her mission to mentor and empower first-generation students at the law school. / Images by Jim Gensheimer.

As she stood at the entrance to Santa Clara’s School of Law last May, calling forward the first-generation students who would be recognized with special stoles ahead of graduation, Thiadora “Dori” Pina couldn’t help but reflect on her journey through college and law school.

Each student who was draped in a glossy red stole that day endured unique obstacles to be there. Each meant a great deal to Pina, who nurtured close relationships with graduates and who has made it her mission to mentor first-generation students as they journey through law school.

“I know what this means—I was you,” says Pina, a clinical professor of law whose own experience as a first-generation student shaped the trajectory of her career. “In so many ways, I’m still you. I know so many of you personally because your journey means so much to me.”

As one of the first people to go to college in a Cape Verdean family of 4 siblings and 15 aunts and uncles—her oldest sister graduated ahead of her—Pina navigated the many unknowns of being among the “first” on her own. At times the experience was overwhelming, confusing, and lonely, and the learning curve was steep. That only intensified when Pina went to law school in her native Boston, and when she entered the professional world in an industry where women of color make up just 9 percent of lawyers in U.S. firms.

Much of Pina’s career today is focused on ensuring that her students never have to experience the isolation that defined much of her law school journey. Her resume highlights that passion clearly: a former civil litigation attorney of 11 years, Pina is the founding faculty advisor for Santa Clara’s First-Generation Law Student Association and faculty advisor for Santa Clara Law’s Black Law Student Association. She’s a lecturer for the LEAD Scholars program, which provides resources to first-generation undergraduate students, and is writing a book to educate first-generation students on the challenges of navigating law school.

She’s an advisor, mentor, and a close confidante to so many in the law school who love her for her notable Bostonian accent, her tough-as-nails realness, and genuine devotion to students.

“She’s larger than life,” says Ryba Bhullar J.D. ‘23, a first-generation, third-year law student at Santa Clara. “She’s the reason I applied to law school, and that changed the entire trajectory of my life. She always has time for us—literally always. She could be doing a million things, but whenever we approach her for anything, she says, ‘I have time. Let’s chat.’ As a first-gen woman of color in a predominantly white institution, knowing that Professor Pina is there in my corner makes every day a little easier.”

Thiadora Pina

Pina’s mission isn’t just to improve the lives of her current students but to better an educational system that has long excluded students of color and underprivileged people.

Without the guidance of a parent or family member who went to college, first-generation students are often left to navigate institutions of higher education on their own—exploring financial aid options, registering for classes, knowing what questions to ask in class, networking for internship opportunities, or even what a professor means when they say to come for office hours.

Those disparities are even more jarring in law school, where first-generation students—often from low-income communities—juggle overwhelming workloads with feelings of isolation, imposter syndrome, and a fear of failing. Many also feel deep, at-times over-bearing ties to the family they left behind and guilt and shock when their profession takes them into a different social class. Pina is brutally honest about these complex, often unspoken aspects of the profession and committed to helping students navigate them early on.

“Law schools and the professional world really pretend that their respective institutions are a level playing field. That is simply far, far from the truth,” says Pina. “I had never heard the word first-gen when I was in college or law school. No one reached out. No one said a word. So, while talent is equally distributed, opportunity, exposure to, and understanding of the professional world are not.”

Getting Ahead

In Pina’s hometown of Hull, Massachusetts, a speck along the southern edge of the Boston harbor, the people she knew simply didn’t go to college. It wasn’t just that no one in her family went to college—she didn’t know anyone in her community who did.

Yet she felt pursuing higher education was the only way to secure her future and build a career.

“I remember looking around and saying to myself, ‘I want to get ahead.’ I can’t say that I understood what that meant. I wanted to be financially secure and see the world. I didn’t understand how to do that except to go to college.”

Pina’s road to college and, later, law school was anything but linear. More like a meandering road that ultimately led her to SCU and her greater purpose.

After graduating high school, she enrolled at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. A mentor suggested she focus on her weaknesses in deciding on a college major, so Pina went the engineering route—math wasn’t her strong suit.

Pina was overwhelmed by many of the same struggles that first-generation students encounter when they first go to college: she had never visited the campus, or any campus, for that matter, before she enrolled and disliked living in the country. Her coursework in engineering was an entirely different can of worms.

Pina, then 18, dropped out after a little more than one semester and—still chasing an innate desire to “get ahead”—worked an insurance job for a year while she lived at home with her parents, who let her live rent-free so that she could save all of her earnings.

With those savings and some extra help from her parents, Pina opened an ice cream parlor in Scituate, Massachusetts, with her best friend from high school. Located on the first floor of a small shopping plaza on Gannet Road, Two Scoops sold cult favorites like vanilla, chocolate, coffee, and banana—Pina’s favorite—and seasonal specialty flavors like peach and rum raisin.

“It was the cheapest thing that I could find to open,” says Pina. “I learned that if I didn’t make my own ice cream, it would be inexpensive. I found a place close to Boston that manufactured ice cream and allowed me to sell it without having to use their name.”

Pina knew the shop wouldn’t be enough to build a financially secure future. It wasn’t her “forever.” Standing in an empty shop one day, she considered her options: start a second business or go to college. She chose the latter.

After running the ice cream shop for three years, Pina enrolled in Quincy Community College before transferring to the University of Massachusetts in Boston in 1992. Her parents let her live at home and paid for meals, but they couldn’t afford to pay for her education. She worked full-time as a nurse’s aide to pay for her studies and textbooks.

After acing an exam in her international relations course during her junior year, Pina found a note from her professor, Dr. Winston Langley, in her blue book.

“On the inside of the cover he wrote that he had been a professor for decades but had only given out a handful of A pluses that entire time,” recalls Pina. “He said to me, ‘I hope you’re thinking about law school or graduate school.’ I looked at the note and said, ‘Well, that’s a good idea.’”

“He changed my whole life.”

Pina graduated magna cum laude from U. Mass and, with Langley’s blessing, went on to the Boston University School of Law. That turned out to be an even larger beast. 

You don’t know what you don’t know

When it comes to the first-gen experience, you’ll often hear Pina use one of her favorite phrases: “You don’t know what you don’t know.” In law school, the many things that Pina didn’t know became painfully clear as she struggled to fit in. As the granddaughter of immigrants and the first in her family to go to law school, Pina found herself in a completely foreign world. A “culture shock,” she called it. The unknowns seemed insurmountable.

She couldn’t crack why students would rush to professors after they finished their lectures, for example. What could they possibly be talking about? It baffled her. It would take years for her to learn that by approaching professors after class, her peers were networking and building close ties that would benefit them even after graduation.

“I thought that I if I went up there, I would have had nothing to add,” she says. “And that’s the issue. It’s not because you’re not smart enough to do the work or you don’t understand what’s in the textbook. I was totally lost because I didn’t understand the socioeconomic piece and how much that drives commonality. When you can’t wiggle into that, you’re on the outside looking in.”

The unknowns continued after law school.

“The experiences of my colleagues were very different from mine,” says Pina. “My colleagues would talk about extended vacations, Broadway shows, nice restaurants, skiing trips—things I had never experienced. And of course, in court, even though I was dressed in a full suit, I would be mistaken for the client.”

Yet Pina thrived, becoming an accomplished civil litigation attorney focused on insurance, healthcare, and personal bankruptcy and regularly appearing in state and federal courts throughout Boston. At Santa Clara, Pina directs the law school’s externship program, which allows students to earn school credit for legal positions under an approved supervisor and sponsor outside of the law school, and designed a mandatory first-year course centered on critical skills and knowledge that students need to succeed in law.

Her struggles have fueled her desire to share her experiences with students in genuine, unfiltered ways.

“Dori is really wonderful about laying things out for students in a really clear way, but also in a way that’s loving and caring,” says Devin Kinyon, an associate clinical professor of law at Santa Clara and a close friend who shares Pina’s passion for mentoring first-gen students. “She is a tough love lady, which is so great. Particularly for our students of color and first-gen students, here is someone who looks like what they want to be but also isn’t feigning that everything will be fine. She’s really honest with people.”

If an initiative or program is benefitting first-generation undergraduate or law students, Pina is front and center. And when that support is lacking, she’s often the first to challenge administrators to rise to the occasion, says Kinyon.

“Her investment in these issues is so much greater than other people, which I’m in awe of,” Kinyon says. “I’ve seen her call out committee members and administrators saying, ‘We’re not doing enough’ or ‘we need to quit pretending that we’re doing things.’ It’s so inspiring because it moves the conversation from generally caring about something to being really specific and engaged. There’s so much bravery in that.”

Erin Kimura-Walsh, director of SCU’s LEAD Scholars program, met Pina after a University administrator meeting in the Walsh building.

“She practically jumped on me saying, ‘I’ve heard so much about you and about LEAD, I need to meet you,’” says Kimura-Walsh. “From very early on, she was passionate about supporting first-gen students and wanted to figure out how she could get involved. That turned into this wonderful, amazing partnership and friendship.”

Pina remains an integral part of the LEAD program, teaching an introduction to law school course and a seminar class for transfer students that maps out the ins and outs of college life.

“She’s just so real and shares her experiences,” says Kimura-Walsh. “There’s so many faculty members who don’t share who they are as people, what their pasts are, what their backgrounds are, what their struggles have been. The fact that she is so transparent about her journey and the challenges that have come with that, along with the amazing advice that she gives to our students based on her own lived experience, is just so powerful.”

This candidness spoke most to Ana Gómez-Pérez J.D. ’22, who describes Pina as an “essential resource” in the law school.

As a former LEAD scholar, Gómez-Pérez had heard of Pina throughout her undergraduate years at SCU but didn’t meet her until she started law school. During their first meeting, Pina checked in on how Gómez-Pérez was faring so far, and the two spoke for two hours about their shared experiences. That mentorship continued throughout Gomez-Perez’s time in law school.

Hearing about Pina’s struggles as she navigated law school helped her reflect on her experience as a first-generation student and the many complexities—such as imposter syndrome—that stemmed from that, says Gómez-Pérez.

“She has an ability to hear you out and connect with you because she’s gone through so many of the same life experiences herself,” says Gómez-Pérez. “But also, the way that she empowers you while she does all that and helps you see things from a different perspective really is huge. She offers a support system that not many professors provide, much less within the law school.”

During her speech at the law school’s first-gen graduation celebration, Gómez-Pérez, who also received a red stole, shared an experience she had early on in her law school career: while she sat in class with a friend, the pair was perplexed by the professor’s frequent mention of “Lawra.” “Who is Lawra, and how do we meet her?” Gómez-Pérez thought, only to find that the professor was referring to the abbreviated name of the course, Legal Analysis, Research and Writing. It’s these knowledge gaps that often define the first-gen experience, she says.

“As first-gen students, we don’t have that previous generation who can explain things to us or be a go-to for any type of question we may have,” she says. “Having resources like Professor Pina makes up for not having that previous generation because she’s a wealth of knowledge. And she’s so eager to share that knowledge.”

Students like Gómez-Pérez are testament to Pina’s devotion to first-generation students. Today, she is the guiding light that she wishes she had all those years ago.

“I feel like this is my mission,” says Pina.

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