TUESDAY — Michigan State University sophomore Elaina Rankin’s interest in becoming a public defender bloomed when she was just a freshman at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills.
It was 2018, and Rankin’s class was assigned an essay for which students were given the option to choose from preselected prompts or choose their own topic. Rankin went with the latter, opting to research prison reform.
“Most people don’t grow up being taught about for-profit prisons, incredibly high recidivism rates, and just how downright destructive incarceration is. This single essay began to widen my thoughts on why the criminal justice system operates, and just how wrong I felt all of this was,” Rankin said.
Six years later, she penned another essay that was selected last month as one of three winners nationally of the Miguel Mendez Social Justice Scholarship, a $1,000 award geared towards low-income, first-generation college undergraduates who are studying social justice and hold a 3.0 GPA or higher. Rankin studies political science on a pre-law track and is pursuing a minor in law, justice and public policy. Her goal is to become a public defender.
She was chosen from a pool of nine finalists, with the winners announced Oct. 16 on Bold.org, an organization which brands itself as the largest independent scholarship provider in the United States. The other two winning applicants were Favour Ekott of CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and Sofia Roca of Our Lady of the Lake University in Schertz, Texas.
The scholarship honors Miguel Mendez Villalpando, a first-generation college student from Colorado who died in a paddle boating accident in July 2022. The 25-year-old Colorado College graduate was pursuing a career as a paralegal at the time of his death. He majored in sociology, with a focus on immigration.
Applicants were asked to submit a video or essay explaining how they are working to address an issue that is important to them.
Rankin opened her submission by explaining how she shared a small bedroom room with her two siblings growing up — a situation familiar to many who grew up with very little.
“Every aspect of our lives when I was young revolved around finances and how to survive. It doesn’t surprise me that many people in similar situations resort to crime purely out of desperation,” she wrote.
Fortunately, Rankin said her parents “never had any felonies or major stints in prison.”
“I understood pretty quickly that we couldn’t afford to have issues like that,” she wrote. “Lawyers cost an arm and a leg and with the financial possibility of one of my parents not being present, my paycheck-to-paycheck household would be unable to function. Seeing how my family could be one misstep away from destruction, I soon realized some of the ways the criminal justice system fails its citizens.”
Once she completes her studies, Rankin looks to join an organization committed to “reforming the prison system.” She said she also plans on working to “educate disadvantaged groups on the legal system.”
“The ability to, in the future, help those with legal issues who deal with similar financial situations I was in throughout my childhood brings me so much joy and purpose,” Rankin wrote. “I am more than committed to providing affordable and free legal services to those who otherwise couldn’t afford it in a system that is far from equitable.”
This is the second year the Miguel Mendez Social Justice Scholarship has been awarded. It was facilitated through Bold.org and funded by Nancy Roberts of Colorado Springs plus 10 smaller donors.
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