Looking up, reaching out

Headshot of Jessica Price

Coffee or tea: Café con leche

Song on repeat: "Lift Me Up" by Rihanna

Guilty pleasure: Ice cream

Show that you're binging: Ted Lasso

Quick advice for students: Don't give up. You belong here.

CHC instructor Jessica Price owes her success in law and higher education to the women who helped shape her.

Jessica Price remembers her first client years ago when she worked as a legal aid: an elderly disabled woman whose food stamps had been cut off.

As a non-lawyer, the brunt of her work consisted of making phone calls and fighting on behalf of the woman. Sometimes, Price was on hold for hours. Sometimes, she didn’t get a call back. And there were times when people on the other end of the phone disagreed with the policies she cited.

But because she believed she was doing the right thing, Price’s persistence prevailed. “She called me when she had the groceries on the table, and she said, ‘I just got home, I put the groceries on the table, and I am going to eat. Thank you.’ And that was so incredibly powerful,” Price recalls. “It felt like this is really where I can make the difference.”

It inspired her to pursue a career in law.

At UO, Price wears many “hats,” as she calls them. She’s been a pro tem instructor at the university’s School of Law. She is an attorney for UO’s Office of the General Counsel. And she serves as assistant vice president of research integrity for the university’s Office of the Vice President of Research and Innovation.

It doesn’t stop there for Price, who is also a board member for Oregon Women Lawyers, and chair of the state of Oregon’s Commission on Black Affairs.

If that wasn’t enough, she’s also teaching a new class in the Clark Honors College for spring term: “Civil Rights in Higher Education.”

As Women’s History Month in March continues and her spring term class approaches, Price looks back on her life as a woman of color in law. She openly reminisces about the important women in her life who’ve supported her and looks for ways to support the young women she will be teaching.

“I choose to lift students and aspiring attorneys up,” she says. “Every once in a while, a student will approach me, and let me know they are glad that I am there. I know exactly what they mean. I am glad that they are here, too.”

Price grew up in Los Angeles with her mother and two older siblings. Her mother was the oldest of 11 children and she immigrated to the United States from El Salvador as a teen. At the time, she hadn’t even finished middle school and didn’t speak English.

Her mom worked a couple jobs at a time, including as a school cafeteria worker and a nurse’s assistant at a county hospital. She didn’t make it home from work most nights until midnight.

“She wanted an education for us,” Price says. “She just didn’t have the tools and the background and the familiarity with the United States’ system to be able to articulate what that should look like.”

Price went to Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles, a school she notes had a reputation for gang activity and violence. She remembers seeing some students beating up an algebra teacher at the school. The teacher quit and was never replaced, and her classroom went unsupervised. Price and her peers had to take summer school to learn the material they missed when the teacher left.

When she was applying for college, it was her essay about being a student at Crenshaw that helped secure her a place at Yale. When she was admitted, Price remembers her mom being supportive, but also scared of how far away her daughter would be from home.

Going to Yale wasn’t easy for Price. She didn’t have the best grades and Yale offered her an academic counselor from the moment she started. Her mom even told her it was OK if she wanted to drop out and come home.

But Price didn’t give up. “When my mom said ‘drop out and come home,’ that made me want to prove everyone wrong,” she recalls. “When Yale said, ‘You might need extra resources to succeed,’ that made me want to prove everyone wrong.”

When she shared the story about her high school algebra teacher with her classmates at Yale, she remembers their shock and anger. Some asked how something like that could happen in a school and they told her she should sue.

“(There was) this level of entitlement that I had not internalized before getting there,” Price recalls. “(It) made me realize how different our backgrounds were and how disadvantaged students were coming from a place like Crenshaw compared to the world of resources of books that many of the students at Yale had.”

At one point, Price was working three jobs to help her make it through college—as a librarian, an elementary school tutor, and a security guard at a bookstore. It all added to her stress because it was difficult to balance her school, work, and personal life.

She says she felt at the time like she didn’t belong. She struggled while her peers were thriving because they had grown up with resources she didn’t have. They had read Shakespeare when she only had access to the movie version. They knew how to use computers when she was still learning basic keystrokes.

“I was sure that they made a mistake in the admissions process,” Price remembers thinking. “I would not be surprised if someone called me from my dorm or called me out of class and said, ‘Hey, so we realized that we made an accident, and your name is very similar to the person we meant to admit.’

“It took me some time to get up to speed and hit my stride,” Price recalls. “But as I realized I should quit one of my jobs, I should modify my behavior in certain ways, and really start to get over the feeling that I didn’t belong, that was huge in being able to stay and succeed.”

After graduating Yale and working as a legal aid for a year, Price went to Harvard Law School. An important figure in Price’s Harvard education was her law professor, Martha Minow. Price remembers Minow always put in the effort to make her feel valued and accepted.

When Price got up the courage to go to Minow’s office hours, she says she felt the professor’s support and interest in her life immediately. “When I would email her, she’d respond right away and was always supportive,” Price recalls. “Even more recently, she still responds within a day.”

Minow says Price’s dedication to justice was obvious from the first day they met. “She brings so many talents to all she does and brings out the best in others, too,” Minow says.

Price says Minow continues to be a big influence. “Professor Minow inspired me to ensure my teaching is inclusive, that I incorporate strategies to reach students from diverse backgrounds, and to meet students wherever they are coming from,” Price says.

She still keeps in touch with Minow, she says, “because I don’t think I could ever do justice to how much of an impact she had on my life. So every once in a while, I let her know where I am in my career and say thank you.”

After Harvard, Price served as a clerk for Judge Dorothy Nelson of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. When Price was looking for clerk opportunities, she was scared she wouldn’t get any because of how much she struggled her first semester at Yale. But Nelson wasn’t looking for perfect scores.

“She said, ‘You really struggled your first semester and then you did great,’” Price remembers. “She said she looked for other people who had the resilience to work their way through the challenges and then still be able to succeed.”

The quality that most stuck with Price was how unapologetic Nelson was about her identity. “She was so powerful in her own right,” Price recalls. “But in no way was she trying to copy her male colleagues. In no way was trying to diminish her personality, and she had the respect of all the other judges.”

After clerking for Nelson, Price went on to become an attorney at the ACLU of Southern California where she worked on cases for people with disabilities. Six years later, she worked in the Title IX office at UCLA, doing work on sexual misconduct cases.

Price spent a year and a half at UCLA, but she says it was incredibly challenging. There was a lot of second-hand trauma in hearing the stories of sexual assault survivors, especially when they were women or women of color.

Price found herself asking: “Why does this seem especially hard for me?” The answer, she found, was empathy. “Coming from the diversity of backgrounds,” she says, “may be part of the reason why I easily empathize with people who are very different. But that empathy also means it’s really tough and tiring.”

Now, Price is turning her attention to her Honors College class. She says she has noticed in other classes she’s taught that when talking about law, higher education becomes an afterthought. “I looked at other classes that have been taught within that topic, but then I brought in my own vision,” she says.

Price is also looking forward to seeing the impact the class has on students, specifically women of color.

“If you see someone who has accomplished something—who is your professor, the judge, who is in a position of power—then you can see yourself in that role,” Price says. “So having more women of color in those positions can inspire folks who aren’t eligible for those positions yet, but they might go that route because they can see a future for themselves in that role.”

In places like law, Price says, its especially important to have women and women of color because of the history of oppression and exclusion they’ve faced in legal settings.

When Price reflects on her journey, she will always remember the women who shaped her.

“My mom always worked so hard,” she says. “She wanted something better for her children and tried the best way she knew how. Professor Minow showed me the dramatic impact that kindness and support can have while students are navigating law school. She believed in me and showed me how to believe in myself. And Judge Nelson showed me that you can be humble and really good at what you do, and that it is possible to always be kind.”

- Story by Julia Boboc, Clark Honors College Communications

- Photo by Ilka Sankari, Clark Honors College Communications