10 Jul 2023
2023 POC Law School Scholarship Recipients
Strive to Make a difference
Sofia DeSimone and Lauren Arthenayake, two powerful young women who aspire to create change, are the recipients of the 2023 Papitto Opportunity Connection Law School Scholarship.The scholarship is offered annually to persons of color from Rhode Island who have been accepted into an accredited law school in the U.S. This scholarship, administered by the Rhode Island Bar Foundation, provides $25,000 annually and is renewable for two additional years.
Both Lauren and Sofia are about to embark on the first step to pursuing their goal of becoming a lawyer. Sofia is entering New York University School of Law and Lauren will begin her journey at Quinnipiac University School of Law this August.
A Voice For Others
Lauren Arthenayake’s goal is to improve Title IXregulations and be an advocate for sexual assault survivors while Sofia plans to return to RI and pursue a career in environment law. “Being a recipient of the Papitto Opportunity Connection Law School Scholarship feels like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. The financial burden of law school is overwhelming, so knowing that I have significant aid is heartwarming,” said Lauren, who juggled three jobs simultaneously while pursuing her undergraduate degree.”
Law school was never on Lauren’s radar. She does not have a pre-law education. For most of her college career at the University of Rhode Island she could be found on the sidelines working with the URI sports media team. Upon graduation Lauren applied for so many sports media jobs, she created a spreadsheet to track the 70 plus open positions she had pursued. It was easy to keep track of the responses. There were none.
“I took it as a sign. My real passion was being an advocate for others,” said Lauren. She would pivot from pursuing a spot on the sidelines to a career in the courtroom. A personal traumatic experience Lauren suffered in college coupled with advocacy work during her internship at URI’s Domestic Violence organization led her to pursue her underlying passion to serve as a voice for others and enter law school.
“My choice to attend law school is a response to my experiences and this scholarship makes me feel as though there are people listening and cheering me on from the sidelines,” said Lauren. “The fear amongst people of color and the legal system is another issue I am passionate about. I want to be a fierce advocate for survivors navigating the legal system looking for assistance,” she said. “Ultimately, I hope to turn my trauma into something to fuel me to help others. Through my personal experience with the criminal justice system, I feel as though change is necessary. I hope to make positive and effective change in order to establish more trust in the legal system, specifically amongst people of color.”
Her father immigrated from Sri Lanka, her mom is from rural Oregon. A biracial woman, Lauren often struggled to find her identity.
“I struggled with the concept of not being brown enough for my peers of color, but not being white enough for my white peers,” she said. “There are few resources readily available and the conversation about what that means is not frequently discussed.”
“I have frequently struggled with figuring out where I fit in, along with feeling as though my voice and opinions only matter in select situations,” said Lauren. “Being biracial is a unique experience, and one that is not frequently discussed. Trying to succeed at a predominately white institution while also attempting to find a space for my ethnic identity was overwhelming at times. I had to forge my own path because there were no groups for biracial students to have an open dialogue about our individually unique struggles.” Lauren is grateful to POC and the commitment the organization has made to support people of color in Rhode Island.
“Everyone preaches equality and social justice. Often these are just words. Papitto Opportunity Connection is quite literally putting its money where its mouth is. It’s not just words, it’s action,” she said. “There is a group of people that are looking at people of color and are saying, ‘You deserve a chance. We want to help you…’ and they are actually doing it. This is incredibly impactful.”
Protecting our Coastline
Sofia DeSimone says her lived experiences growing up in RI and yearly trips to her mother’s homeland of Puerto Rico motivated her to pursue a career in law.
“For a while, I wanted to be a film major and make documentaries about the ocean and climate change. And then when I was a senior in college, I ended up switching my major to sociology. I learned a lot more about social issues and how the law affects them,” Sofia said. “I took an environmental law class and I realized that environmental law was a great pathway for me to give back to my community in RI, help protect the coastlines, and natural areas that had such a huge impact on me when I was growing up.”
Born and raised in the Ocean State, the 23-year-old remembers frequently visiting the University of Rhode Island for talks and seminars as she discovered her passion for oceanography. Her personal connection to nature and environmental justice drives Sofia and her work as social media editor for the American Civil Liberties Union(ACLU). Ahead of her first year at NYU Law, Sofia says she’s learning how to use her background in film to engage Americans on the most pressing civil liberties issues.
“I’ve been in social media for a while,” said Sofia. “What I’ve learned is when I [review] a Supreme Court case and then I’m able to break it down into three Tweets so that somebody can understand, it’s rewarding to see how learning about these issues allows people to act. When you break down what’s going on in the law, what’s going on in the courts, people do want to know about it, and they do want to help.”
After graduation, Sofia is hopeful her experience working at the ACLU will help her return to Rhode Island and practice law. She says the Law School Scholarship from POC changed the trajectory of her life.
“People always say we want diversity, we want more people with different experiences, we want different candidates. But I think things like this, where you show up and you give people a grant, you give people an opportunity, that is the crucial missing piece that will help get people there,” Sofia said. “I genuinely [think] had I not gotten this scholarship, I probably would have thought differently about the schools that I went to. Maybe I wouldn’t have been able to afford NYU.”