Meet some of our first-generation college graduates

Thelma Aguilar Gutierrez: Making Georgia home

By the age of nine, Thelma Aguilar Gutierrez had lived in two countries, including four American states. Aguilar Gutierrez, a second-year law student, is a Nicaraguan immigrant who did not speak English when she came to the United States as a young child. After some time and a few moves around the country, her family settled in Tunnel Hill, Georgia.

thelma photo“I think around middle or high school my parents were thinking of moving again, and I remember telling them ‘please let’s not move,’ because this was the first state we’ve stayed in for a long time,” Aguilar Gutierrez said. “I’ve always very much associated [the state of] Georgia with stability and permanence.”

When Aguilar Gutierrez had the opportunity to stay in the Peach State — only three hours away from her family — and earn an undergraduate degree in criminal justice from UGA, she took it. And when the time came to make a similar decision about where she wanted to attend law school, it came down to the School of Law’s many amenities and programs.

Aguilar Gutierrez is a Dean’s Ambassador, a Dean Rusk International Law Center Student Ambassador, and a member of the Hispanic Law Students Association, the Military Law Society, the International Law Society and the First-Generation Student Association. Additionally, she is a Benham Scholar and recipient of the Reginald R. Smith and Leigh McCranie Smith Annual Scholarship.

All of these accomplishments and level of involvement do not come without challenges. Being a first-generation college graduate, first-generation law student, and an immigrant, Aguilar Gutierrez faces unique circumstances.

A native Spanish speaker, she did not learn English until she was seven years old, which can still present a language barrier and make social situations harder to navigate. She also does not have as many personal connections as some of her classmates, and she has to work hard to fund her education.

“My parents come from a very low socioeconomic status, so I’ve been trying to find ways to finance my education … so that’s been a challenge,” she said. “I would not be where I am today without the help of so many scholarship donors along the way who saw potential in me and wanted me to succeed.”

Ultimately, this makes Aguilar Gutierrez truly value her education, and in the future she wants to set up her own scholarship for minority students from low-income backgrounds so they can have the same opportunities as her. She said she is proud of herself, and she is glad her family can be proud of her too after all the sacrifices they have made for her.

“It means a lot that I can represent my family and my culture well,” Aguilar Gutierrez said. She added that she wants to be a role model for those who come after her – someone in the Latino community who others can look to and realize that the daunting goal of attending law school is not impossible.

Molded by the experience of immigrating to the United States and navigating higher education as a first-generation student, Aguilar Gutierrez said she has grown to be more resilient, courageous and optimistic.

Once she graduates, Aguilar Gutierrez said she looks forward to a prosperous life where she can give back to her family, the Georgia community and the law school that has become her home.

Ta’lor Billups: The value of mentorship

Ta’lor Billups may be the first in her family to graduate college and attend law school, but she has never felt alone on her higher education journey.

ta'lor photoThrough ambition, a hunger to learn and valuable mentorships, she has navigated rigorous classes, found involvement as an AnBryce Distinguished Law Fellow, through membership in the Davenport-Benham Black Law Students Association and the Dean’s Ambassadors as well as spending the summer working as an associate with Kilpatrick Townsend in the area of intellectual property.

When she talks about what brought her to law school, she partly credits intellectual property law with her decision. Her father, a music producer and one of her biggest influences, has fallen victim to piracy in the past.

“I have seen first-hand how important it is for artists, producers and writers to have their work protected,” Billups said. “I would like to make a difference by helping to protect creative enterprises in ways that make music, art, writing and other forms of innovation more available for us to enjoy, while also protecting people who work hard to produce these works.”

She acknowledged the kindness and encouragement she received from the School of Law’s admissions team, professors, her parents and even complete strangers for serving as mentors and guiding her to where she is now. As a first-generation and minority student, Billups said the support from the law school community means a lot to her.

“I hope to be able to continue to push [the legal profession] toward reflecting how diverse the world is,” Billups said. “When I entered the university, I made a promise to a member of the faculty who I really look up to that, when I was able, I would reach back and help someone else. That is why I work so hard in school to sharpen my legal skills and secure excellent internships so that one day I can be in a position to help another student.”

At UGA, Billups said she has been able to hone her leadership skills, and she enjoys being able to support her peers in whatever way she can. Through the Dean’s Ambassadors, she is able to help guide prospective students through the admissions process and have a direct impact on their experience with the School of Law. “Whenever I get the opportunity, I give my business card to a prospective student because that is the type of care I received from alumni and students when I was applying,” she added.

This past year, she had the opportunity to participate in the J. Ralph Beaird 1L Closing Argument Competition. Billups said that although she was scared and had never done oral advocacy before, she improved her speaking skills and was proud of her effort. She ended up placing in the top eight in the competition but, more importantly, she found immense value in trying something new. Billups said this is a lesson she hopes to pass along to other law students who she hopes to mentor in the years to come; she wants them to “just go for it.”

Steven Miller: A heart for service

After nearly a decade in the U.S. Air Force, Steven Miller was ready for a change. He initially graduated from the prestigious Air Force Academy and worked in the area of space operations throughout the country, where he found a love for service.

steven photoContinuously driven and inspired by his two daughters, Maisie (age 10) and Marcie (age 7), Miller came back to school at age 32 to establish a new career where he could continue to serve people and be the best possible father for his girls.

“My girls are my motivation,” Miller said. “I want to be someone they can be proud of.”

Wanting to return to the Washington, D.C., area, Miller was instantly interested in the School of Law because of its unique ties to the nation’s capital. He said when he came to tour UGA, he walked around the law school, visited the law library and sat in on a class, where he was amazed to see everyone smiling, laughing and having fun together.

“It sounds silly to look back on it, but I walked away knowing this was the environment I wanted to be in,” Miller said. “I want to be surrounded by happy people who have the right perspective.”

In addition to being a veteran, Miller is a first-generation college student. He said he did not know what to expect when it came to college, but he had no problem diving in headfirst. Despite being the first in his family to earn an undergraduate degree and attend law school, Miller’s mother was always adamant he would attend college and make a better life for himself.

Although it was difficult to jump back into school after nearly a decade, Miller said he loves the intellectual challenge and works obsessively on each case. During his first two years at the School of Law, Miller has received the Pin Point Scholarship and participated in the Washington, D.C. Semester In Practice and the Global Governance Summer School in Leuven, Belgium, all thanks to scholarships funded by the law school community.

“I’ve gotten a lot of love and support from unexpected people in unexpected ways that allows me to do these things,” he said. In return, Miller seeks to serve others. He admits that his passion is not necessarily for public service, but a service that is more personal and brings good to those around him.

“My best self is helping others become their best selves,” Miller said. “Simple moments like covering a meeting for someone because their child has a school function or finding a counselor for someone who was going through a rough time in their marriage – those intimate moments stick with me more than anything else.”

Miller interned with the Federal Trade Commission this past summer, working in the area of antitrust litigation. He plans to continue to work for the federal government upon graduation in 2021 and pursue his love of serving others and make a lasting and meaningful impact, one person at a time.

Roya Naghepour: Building authentic relationships

Roya Naghepour is a familiar face to many on campus.

roya photoThe second-year law student also attended UGA for her undergraduate degree, where she was involved in a vast range of university offerings. Naghepour was active in Greek life, represented the student body on the UGA Athletic Association Board, spent two summers interning in Washington, D.C., and was a leader in UGA’s Relay for Life.

These positions and more allowed her to create genuine connections with people from all areas of the UGA community, which led her to run for vice president of the Student Government Association.

“What I wanted to do more than anything was to advocate for students to high-level administration on meaningful projects,” Naghepour said.

After being elected, she devoted herself to the enormous responsibility of representing the entire student body, striving to improve support for sexual assault victims, advocating for mental health resources, creating the UGA Mentor Program and drafting the student football ticketing policy.

As much as she poured into the UGA community, it poured right back into her, making the choice easy when it came time to decide whether to remain in Athens for her law degree.

Naghepour has built invaluable relationships with law school alumnae like Lisa Godbey Wood (J.D.’90), a federal judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia. She has also found a mentor in Stacey Godfrey Evans (J.D.’03), who, like Naghepour, was a first-generation college student navigating law school.

“She really helped me realize what it means to be first-gen,” she said. “The way that I would characterize it is students who have the grit and resilience to change their family’s trajectory. I think it’s pushing past the hurdle of not having that extra knowledge [about higher education] and turning that insecurity into something motivating.”

Naghepour is also an inaugural Amos First-Start Scholar — an honor awarded to first-generation law students — and not only is she overcoming the challenges that come along with being a first-generation student, but she is also a first-generation American.

Her parents were Iranian refugees, non-Muslims who faced potentially fatal consequences if they chose to remain in their country after the Iranian Revolution. With no basic rights and an inability to get an education, they sought asylum. The United Nations placed her parents in Atlanta and Roya was born one year later.

“Being a Georgian is something that I take a lot of pride in because that’s where my family first called home,” Naghepour added.

She plans to stay in the Peach State and practice business law in Atlanta after graduation, helping corporations “navigate all of the liabilities that come with serving our society.”

She attributes her growing interest in the corporate structure to her previous internship with the Delta Air Lines government affairs team and finding a mentor in her first-year contracts professor Usha Rodrigues, who holds a University Professorship and the law school’s Kilpatrick Chair of Corporate Finance and Securities Law.

Naghepour said it is partly her family history that drives her passion for the law, recalling when her parents were studying for their citizenship tests. She, a second grader at the time, would quiz them on topics like the U.S. Supreme Court and Georgia history. She has seen the effects of a person’s rights being given and taken away and she said those issues “are embedded in the law transforming someone’s life so intimately.”

What excites her the most about the future is the prospect of being an alumna of the School of Law, returning to Athens and making meaningful connections with future students and contributing to their education as much as her mentors have contributed to hers.

– Bailey Walker