Onward & upward: Iraq native overcomes hurdles along path to her legal career

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By Linda Laderman
Legal News

As a young girl growing up in Iraq, Rita Samir Soka never imagined that one day she’d leave her family in Baghdad to move to the United States where she would raise a family and earn two college degrees before entering law school as a University of Detroit Mercy School of Law Dean’s Fellow.

But before any of that could happen, Soka, who was 18 when she moved to America, and her fiancé, an American of Iraqi descent, learned that if the couple followed their original plan for Soka to emigrate to the U.S., where she planned to live with members of her family, before her wedding, she’d have to wait for more than a year to obtain a visa.

To complicate matters even further, the Iraqi government barred its citizens from marrying an American on Iraqi soil. Her future husband, Sarmed Soka, a naturalized citizen, had lived in the U.S. since he was an infant.

“We realized we’d have to get married in a different country. That led us to Jordan where we had a church wedding. Soon after, we worked with an immigration lawyer who helped me get the proper documentation to move here,” Soka said.

It didn’t take long for Soka to decide she wanted to further her education. She knew that meant achieving proficiency in English.

“The only English I knew was from grammar school. Because I had learned to read right to left, it was difficult for me,” Soka said. “Then I thought, ‘How will I be able to guide my children through school if I’m not educated?’ I was here for less than a year when my father-in-law drove me to Oakland Community College to take a placement test in English and math.”

Though Soka didn’t score high enough in English on her first attempt, she was undaunted. Less than a year after she moved to America, she took a job as a cashier to help her improve her English. When the store needed a pharmacy technician she applied for and got the job.

“I always wanted to be a pharmacist, so I said, ‘Why don’t I apply for the job and maybe go to pharmacy school later?’ Soka recalled. “I was accepted and worked there for two years. I am convinced that working helped me improve my speaking, reading and writing skills.”

Armed with the confidence she gained from working, Soka, who by now was the mother of two toddlers, retook the placement test at OCC, doubled her initial score, and enrolled in OCC’s pharmacy-focused classes.
From there, Soka was unstoppable.

“I concentrated on pharmacy, with the intent to enroll in pharmacy school after I earned my associate’s degree. I graduated from OCC with honors. My whole family was at the awards ceremony. By the time I finished my associate’s degree, I’d had a third child, a boy,” Soka said with a laugh, adding, “I told myself, ‘I am going to be something one day.’”

Since Soka had accumulated two years of credits that would transfer to Wayne State’s clinical laboratory science program, she decided to forego pharmacy school and complete her bachelor’s degree in two years.

“I found I really enjoyed learning about science and recent developments in the field. I thought about going to medical school because I liked the idea of using my education to help people solve their issues,” Soka said. “To be a person who could affect people’s lives using what I learned was very satisfying for me.”

Soka easily found work in her field after her 2009 graduation from Wayne State. Still, the idea of further advancing her education was never far from her mind.

“Ever since I graduated from Wayne I’d hoped to go back to school. By that point I realized medical school was not going to be an option for me because I would be away from my family for too long,” Soka said. “Yet, I still wanted to be a member of a profession where I could directly impact other people’s lives, something that was more challenging than what I was doing.”

A conversation with her younger daughter gave Soka the idea to look into law school, where, upon bar admission, she would have the opportunity to combine her science background with a legal education.

“My daughter, Sabrina, who also wants to be an attorney, did a high school research paper on how to become a lawyer. She said, ‘Mom, you’re always winning arguments, like the time you proved to the ordinance committee that a new tree had to be 25 feet away from a fire hydrant. You were using the law to fight, and you won.’”

Soka looked into it and decided to fulfill the necessary requirements to attend law school. By the time she’d completed them, she’d been offered scholarships to two area law schools, including acceptance as a Dean’s Fellow at Detroit Mercy Law.

“The environment was welcoming and friendly. The chance to have one on one relationships with my professors was very important to me. And they had trust and confidence in me that I was going to do well. It felt good to know they believed in me.”

Jennifer Rumschlag, associate dean, Enrollment Management & Communications at Detroit Mercy Law, said Soka’s selection as a Dean’s Fellow was based on character, pointing to her work ethic and academic achievement.

“Rita was chosen based on her excellence prior to law school.  We believe she is an excellent addition to the Detroit Mercy Law community and the legal community,” Rumschlag said. “Fellowships are our most prestigious admissions scholarships.  They are awarded to incoming students who have demonstrated excellence prior to law school through academics, leadership, professionalism, and service. Fellows receive full-tuition scholarship support, alumni mentors, and leadership, networking, and service opportunities throughout law school.”

Soka’s husband, two daughters and a son, are full of pride for her, even posting her achievements on social media.

“My family is very proud and excited for me. My daughters put it all over social media,” said Soka, a first year law student. “People ask me why I decided to go to law school and I tell them, ‘The more I learned about the legal profession, the more I felt like it was where I belonged.’ The challenge the law offers is incredible. This is what I was looking for.”

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