By Sheila Pursglove
At an age when most people are considering retirement, Stephanie Woods Samuels went back to school to earn a law degree—and commuted from Texas to Michigan every weekend for five years to do so.
A long time employee of American Airlines in Fort Worth, where she is an environmental specialist, Samuels works full time, long hours, and travels extensively during the week. Weekday classes were not an option but Western Michigan University Cooley Law School’s weekend classes, for the most part, fit her schedule, and she could fly standby for free. In her five years of weekly travels to the Lansing and Auburn Hills campuses, she only missed one weekend, and graduated with her J.D. in January.
“I’m still with the airline, now nearly 20 years,” she says. “I’m highly analytical and was interested in law from an early age. I wish I’d done this 30 years ago, but I knew after my very first Cooley weekend that, oh yeah, this was right down my alley! It was not always easy—actually it was never simply easy—but well worth the effort in terms of personal satisfaction.”
Samuels plans to continue working with the international environmental programs at the airline until retirement, develop a part-time law practice, and shepherd the success an international nonprofit.
“I come from a long line of farmers and horticulturalists. I love the awe, inspiration and sheer beauty of nature and want to help preserve it,” she says. “Being an environmental specialist allows me to channel that desire, plus I love to travel. I also plan to include environmental law into my international practice.
Her favorite law school experiences, hands down, were the clinics.
“In the Landlord Tenant Eviction Diversion Clinic, I got to apply the law representing actual clients in a Michigan court,” she says. “But my absolute top pick—should be mandatory for all students regardless of legal career path—was Professor Gary Bauer’s Solo By Design Clinic, the best confidence booster of my entire law school career. I completed that clinic with not only a business plan, but the pure certainty that I could actually be successful right out of law school. I’m a fairly confident person, but that clinic unveiled a comfortable level of fearlessness.”
Samuels enjoyed study abroad programs at Hertford College at Oxford University in England, and at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand, and found it fascinating to compare international and environmental law and culture to the U.S. system.
“Our planet’s people—no matter how remote—have different, yet similar histories and experiences,” she says. “Especially while in New Zealand, I did not count on both hands the number of people who looked like me—people of African descent. They were just as curious and inquisitive about me, as I them. People would stare and literally do double takes at me. I would just smile and give an acknowledging nod. But when I spoke, often I was asked if I was a visiting professor at the university.”
On both trips, Samuels was able to check off two decades-old items on her bucket list – Stonehenge in England, and bringing in the New Year on a boat in Darling Harbor against the iconic backdrop of the Sydney Australia Opera House.
“Both were, as we say … all that, and more!” she says.
Samuels also got the chance to attend a United Nations forum last May.
“If you are patient, observe, listen and apply just a little effort, life has a way of revealing seeds of opportunity that so enrich your life that you find not just your voice, but your roar,” she says.
One of those seeds presented itself during the New Zealand program, where Professor Valmaine Toki, who is the New Zealand U.N. Representative to the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples Issues, invited students to attend the annual conference at the U.N. Headquarters in New York.
“My eyes and heart were opened during that conference,” Samuels says. “I was so enthralled in the whole process and the plight of the world’s indigenous peoples that I’ve started an international nonprofit organization to help educate, enrich, expand and explore opportunities for those interested including indigenous peoples. We’re starting off with an international space camp and explorers program for kids. Of course the real work begins after I pass the bar exam, but the seed is germinating.”
A resident of Cedar Hill, a suburb of south Dallas, Samuels puts travel at the top of her leisure time interests.
“I want to see every foot of this planet,” she says.
She also enjoys musicals, swimming, dancing, learning about outer space, and spending time with her husband, Jack, and her family, including two dogs.
Passionate about family history research, the former journalism graduate created The Gatekeeper, an organization for compiling, managing and presenting research, documents and artifacts. Two self-publications include two hard cover books and two companion audio/video CDs that present the research and history.
She also researched, wrote, produced and directed a documentary on the history of State Street AMEZ Church, one of the oldest African Methodist Episcopal Zion Churches in Mobile, Ala., where she was raised. It aired several years ago on a public television station in Washington, D.C. during Black History Month.
She also finds time to volunteer at Catholic Charities, assisting immigrants with citizenships applications; with the Cedar Hill Citizens Police Academy; and with the local Community Emergency Response Team (CERT).
Delayed gratification: Recent law school grad eyes her second career
By Sheila Pursglove