Funk & Associates is pleased to announce that the winner of the first Funk Law Student Scholarship is Irene Hong from the University if Pennsylvania Las School. Her wonderful essay can be found below.
The phone rings and I answer. After confirming for the frantic caller that she has reached the Food Stamp Hotline, I begin to ask her how I can help. I balance the phone headset between my ear and shoulder, swivel my office chair, and stop in front of a colorful wall plastered with pastel yellow sticky notes and flyers. My eyes scan the walls for a list of food pantries open on Tuesday afternoons and easily accessible by SEPTA. With my finger on the wall, I locate the three closest food pantries in her zip code and inform the client on the other end of the line.
My interest in the barriers associated with food access began in high school and developed significantly during my undergraduate career. During my high school years, I worked with my local church and Homeless Street Ministries as a Korean-Spanish translator. I had the opportunity to connect a predominantly Mexican-American community with elderly, first-generation Korean immigrants over an equally diverse hot meal. Through the sharing of sumptuous Korean galbi and chocolate Costco cake, sticky white rice and hearty Mexican posole, I learned to appreciate the role of food in shaping community dynamics and cross-cultural relationships. Yet, I wanted to learn more and do more to actively make an impact on the communities I served.
My zeal to make a more significant impact followed me to the University of Pennsylvania, and I actively sought to understand why access to quality food in urban communities mirrors socioeconomic status so powerfully. Naturally, I enrolled in Politics of Food, an academically based community service course focusing on analyzing the ideologies, institutions, and social movements that shape the intersection of food and politics in the United States.
Through this course, I partnered with the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger to conduct an independent study while also providing direct service to clients applying for public benefit programs. For my independent study, I researched the impact of the most recent child nutrition reauthorization bill—the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010—on federal school meal participation rates nationwide and in the School District of Philadelphia. While working the Food Stamp Hotline, single mothers, college students, and the elderly would tell me of the bureaucratic hurdles they faced when trying to access public benefit programs like food stamps. All I could do was unsatisfyingly guide them through the application process again and hope for a different outcome, but every day, I felt a growing desire to help them overcome the complexities of this broken system.
Here, I realized a few things: first, I have a deep desire to serve as a resource to underprivileged communities and help navigate the complexities of broken legal and administrative systems. Second, with an interdisciplinary legal education and work experience beyond the public sector, I can build the skill set to do this on a sustainable, long-term basis.
For the next two summers, first as an undergraduate intern and later as a summer law clerk, I worked at DLA Piper and discovered the value of jump-starting my legal career in a law firm setting. I gained hands-on experience in the private sector, learning the ins and outs of corporate law while also providing pro bono counsel by tapping into the massive resources of an international law firm. Most importantly, I fostered relationships with mentors who, for decades, have utilized their big law experience to bridge the gap between different sectors and more effectively serve the communities they care about.
My goal for big law is to become an expert in tax law and connect with talented lawyers who can provide mentorship, funding, or perhaps even direct partnership in the ventures I pursue after big law. By immersing myself in the intersection of business, investing, policy, and tax law, I hope to bring a wealth of understanding in creating intercultural dialogues. Developing a private sector-oriented perspective will greatly enhance my understanding of how the public sector can approach similar problems, and vice versa, ultimately enabling me in the long run to utilize all these perspectives and provide the highest quality legal counsel to communities that traditionally do not have access to these services.
As I reflect on my journey, I feel incredibly fortunate and grateful for many things—for having the opportunity to volunteer at amazing organizations, attend an Ivy League university, and ultimately break into a legal industry where less than 3% of law firm equity partners are minority women. Above all, I hope to pay forward even a fraction of the guidance and support I have been given, utilizing my expertise in the intersection of public and private sectors to maximize my impact on generations to come.