Alumni Spotlight: Tanya D. Woods (JD ’13)

Tanya WoodsI never imagined I’d be attending law school at 42, as a single, widowed mom of two. Unlike many of my classmates, my story on becoming a lawyer begins midlife—one month shy of my 40th birthday. That same summer, a childhood friend committed suicide, a close cousin got married, and my oldest child started her senior year of high school. So many life events had me questioning what was next for me. Change was in the air, and I had no idea what I was in for.

That August, my husband of almost 17 years, my partner and college sweetheart, died unexpectedly from a pulmonary embolism following a 10-day stint in a leg cast for a torn Achilles heel. At 44, Mike—my companion since I was 17—suddenly vanished. The following month, a friend lost his battle with cancer. October arrived and I lost my second mother— my grandmother, mere days before my wedding anniversary. So much loss in so little time transformed me in many ways. I was suddenly a single mother of a 16-year-old and 10-year-old. Because I’d had a loving coparent, and my children had had an active, present father, I felt out of place in single mothers clubs or support groups for divorced people; I felt out of place everywhere.

Naming her passion, then following it

My life morphed from a colorless silent movie to a high-def, Dolby™ sound, wide-screen drama. I began to feel emotions more deeply, events impacted me more profoundly, and my career no longer fit the “new me.” But I was now the sole breadwinner. Should I follow my passion and trust the money would follow? And what was my passion? What next?

Spiritually grounded, I turned to God for answers. I renewed my Catholic vows, had my son baptized, and joined a new church. Yet, I still struggled with finding direction and purpose. After many months of soul searching, self-help books, counseling, and chats with friends, the answer appeared. My passion for advocacy and the deferred dream of becoming a lawyer resurfaced. The more I thought and talked about it, the pieces fell into place. I’d forgotten my childhood aspirations of being an orator and advocate, like the ancient Greek statesmen depicted in history books. Perry Mason reruns andLA Lawhad become my role models as I was growing up, but without the proper guidance, my dream died.

It was 2009 when I began exploring the possibility of attending law school. Studying for the LSAT was all I could think about. With each practice test, I questioned myself. But I was determined to continue. I promised myself that by fall 2010, I would enroll in law school—no matter what. I was overjoyed when I received my acceptance letter from Loyola University Chicago. But with no savings, I would have to secure a massive loan. Four days before classes began, I was approved for enough funds to cover tuition, a mortgage, and expenses for a family of three. I was on my way!

In law school, I assessed my strengths, tested my weaknesses, and leveraged experiences from my career. Josie Gough (BA ’74, MEd ’78, JD ’84), director of Loyola’s Experiential Learning Program, was also new to Loyola. She helped rebrand a more marketable me and, understanding my difficult work/life challenges, assisted me in finding work that used my skills and credentials.

Loyola community provides strong support network

During law school, life challenges and changes continued: my mother and a beloved friend were diagnosed with cancer (sadly, my friend died); my daughter graduated from Northwestern University; and my son started high school. Thankfully, countless Loyola faculty members, deans, and administrators lent me their time, counsel, and attention. I took advantage of externships, earned my 711, networked, and made solid connections. My family stood in the gap, my support group grew, and my best friend was always on the other end of the phone when needed.

After graduation, with no full-time job offer, I returned to work part-time at the law firm where I worked in law school. It came to my attention that an esteemed Loyola law alumna, the Honorable Virginia Kendall (JD ’92), US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, was looking for a law clerk, and I enthusiastically applied. For a nontraditional law student who was admittedly not at the top of my class, this opportunity was a dream come true. During my clerkship, I learned more than words can express, and under Judge Kendall’s tutelage, I planned my next career move.

An externship at the Department of Homeland Security-Immigration and Customs Enforcement had introduced me to immigration law. While I was externing, a Loyola alumna and immigration attorney, Katie Vannucci (JD ’07), had encouraged me to take bold steps early in my career. So, following my judicial clerkship, I secured a position at the largest business immigration law firm in the country: Fragomen Worldwide. Recently, recalling the advice of former dean Nina Appel, who saw me as a future elected official when I was a 1L, I dusted off my skills from a previous career in government and joined the campaign staff of a political candidate gearing up for the elections in March and November. I saw this as an opportunity to start preparing for a possible future in public service.

I’ve also recently rekindled my love for alternative dispute resolution. At Loyola, I competed in the International Academy for Dispute Resolution competitions, and I now coach and judge competitions for Loyola’s mediation team. This spring, I earned a mediation certification from the Center for Conflict Resolution. I’ve also helped reenergize my high school alma mater’s bar association and become its first elected president.

Today, my daughter is an environmental engineer pursuing her passion for social justice, my son is headed to Stanford, and my mother is active and healthy. I’m still asking: what next? Though I live in this constant state of change, experiences have taught me to happily embrace transition as my new normal.

This alumni spotlight was featured in our Summer 2016  Loyola Law Magazine. To read past issues, please click here.

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