Mitchell Hamline students Michelle Furrer, Marilys Solano, and Jayashree Venkateswaran have been named Student Award of Merit recipients for 2023. All three are part of the class of students that entered law school in August 2020 at the height of the COVID pandemic. Their studies were entirely online for their first year. The trio recently completed their final law school courses and will graduate next month.
The award, from the Mitchell Hamline Alumni Association, honors graduating students whose contributions and participation in organizations and other events go beyond the normal expectations for a student, and who exhibit a strong commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
A blended-learning student from rural Washington, Michelle Furrer continued to manage her family’s third-generation cattle ranch during law school. Her husband, fellow student Chris Furrer, noted his wife sometimes had to join online meetings from the seat of a tractor after a long day or just after feeding animals. “Her ability to balance her academic pursuits with her family responsibilities is a testament to her strength, resilience, and determination,” he said.
Her academic work included being president of Mitchell Hamline’s Environmental Law Society this year, as well as an associate for Volume 48 and Notes and Comments Editor for Volume 49 (this year) of the school’s law review.
Previously a teacher in Colombia and Washington state, Furrer has used her Spanish language skills at local immigration clinics in Washington. After recently finishing as a legal resident for Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Anne McKeig 92, she is now clerking for a judge in Snohomish County, Wash.
“One of my favorite things about Michelle is her quiet leadership both in and outside of the classroom,” said Professor Leanne Fuith ’10. “She is, without a doubt, committed to serving the MH community, her classmates and colleagues, and the legal profession.”
Furrer also enrolled in the inaugural Wrongful Convictions and Sentencing Clinic this year with Professor Kate Kruse. The clinic works with the Conviction Review Unit at the Minnesota Attorney General’s office to review cases that might be candidates for formal review by the unit. At the heart of her work, added Kruse, is “a desire to make the world around her better and a collaborative approach that seeks to bring people together.”
A first-generation Latina student from Miami, Solano served this year as both treasurer for Mitchell Hamline’s Student Bar Association and vice president of the Latine Law Student Association. She is also a member of the Black Law Students Association.
In addition to her studies, Solano has worked part time as a research assistant with Professor Jill Bryant and Research Librarian Alisha Hennen on a project to follow the progeny of corporate entities that have profited from industrial slavery (or peonage). She has served as a guardian ad litem for the past two years in Florida. “Being a guardian ad litem has been one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever been a part of,” said Solano. “I am excited to continue impacting my community for the children.”
Solano has also provided pro bono services conducting extensive document reviews for a criminal defense attorney and won the Outstanding Service Student award from the Minnesota Justice Foundation.
“Mari has a quick mind for the law and embraces the hard work necessary in legal education to be sharp and ready,” said one of her professors, Carolyn Grose, in a letter recommending Solano for the award. “Her dedication and commitment to her studies are evident, but what sets her apart is her ability to apply her knowledge and skills in innovative ways that benefit her peers and the community at large.”
Jayashree Venkateswaran hopes to mentor diverse law students to make their legal journey just a little bit easier.
But the difficulties of being a first-generation law student, as well as a woman of color in legal education, weren’t the only complications to Venkateswaran’s journey. She continued her studies while undergoing treatment for breast cancer after being diagnosed in early 2022. “The fact that she was able to persevere in light of these personal challenges shows just how amazing she is,” said Professor Ana Pottratz Acosta, in nominating Venkateswaran.
Born and raised in India, Venkateswaran earned an MBA there before eventually moving Minnesota to be an immigration paralegal. That sparked her interest. “Going back to school at a stage when most people are comfortably settled in their careers is not something I imagined I’d do,” said Venkateswaran. “But I am really happy that I was brave enough to make that decision.”
At Mitchell Hamline, Venkateswaran was a student director in the Health Law Clinic; worked with a group of students that prepared a training for physicians on completing naturalization waivers; and conducted important legal research to provide technical support to Minnesota lawmakers on a new law that allows residents to apply for drivers’ licenses regardless of immigration status.
“She has consistently proven herself to be thoughtful in developing the legal strategy in the case, well prepared, and considerate of the wishes and needs of her clients,” added Pottratz Acosta.
Venkateswaran’s focus has been being a good role model for her teenage daughter. “I want to show her the sky is truly the limit when it comes to going after what makes you happy.”