Being at a close-knit, liberal arts school students get the opportunity to explore different options for their futures. These alumni saw their path to law school through Finlandia, while one Upper Peninsula lawyer has already proven that track as she followed her childhood passion.
Brierra Ruska, a 2015 Finlandia graduate, and current University of North Dakota Law School student was asked a question that changed her life two weeks before graduation.
“Dr. (Richard) Gee (head of the Criminal Justice department) asked me, ’why aren’t you going to law school?’. Law school had never crossed my mind but, when he asked me, I didn’t have an answer for why not,” Ruska remembered.
Ruska started off wanting to be a police officer, but as she went through the Criminal Justice program, she found herself concerned more with policies and the aftermath of an offender who had been charged.
She wants to help those who are in a tough spot in life. “Their worst moment is not their defining moment and the way most people think about crime, just creates a system of reoffenders,” she said. “I want to do it differently.”
While Ruska didn’t study for her LSAT during her time at Finlandia, she credits the faculty and staff relationships she formed here as one of the driving reasons she decided to pursue a law degree.
The best thing she took from her time here at Finlandia was her ability to have an open mind. The style of teaching that Ruska experienced taught her to see the justice system differently. This characteristic now differentiates her from a lot of other law students.
Ruska encourages current students not to take the small school and community for granted, to embrace it, to take things as a whole and respect others.
Thomas Kerr, a 2017 Finlandia graduate, is currently in law school at Michigan State University. Kerr came to Finlandia to play hockey, but after injuries plagued his athletic pursuits, he turned to a dream of law school.
“People are wrong not to think of Finlandia for pre-law,” he said. “I’m shocked at how many people here [at Michigan State] have heard of Finlandia and our Criminal Justice program. It’s not as big of a secret as we think it is.”
The faculty had a lot to do with what made the experience at Finlandia special for Kerr. Through learning about the criminal justice system and social policies, he discovered that he could make a difference with a career as a lawyer.
Kerr knew he had a network of fellow students and staff that were there for him to lean on. That one-on-one level of support made all the difference in preparing for both the LSAT and law school.
Brandon Loera, a 2016 Finlandia graduate and now at Valparaiso University Law School, started as an athlete looking for a path and found himself drawn to Criminal Justice during the introductory course. It wasn’t until his junior year, however, that he began thinking about law school.
With the realization that he had all of the tools he needed to be a successful law school candidate, he began asking more about taking the LSAT and how to prepare for it.
“I had everything I needed – subject matter, great faculty and drive,” Loera said. “It’s all about what you do with what’s in front of you.”
Erica Payne, former Vice President of the Finlandia Alumni Board, 2007 Finlandia graduate and 2010 Western Michigan University Cooley Law School graduate, wasn’t the first Finlandia University alum to become a lawyer. However, she is pretty sure that she was the first to have entered a program at Finlandia with the intention of becoming a lawyer.
There was no formal path to a law degree at Finlandia when Payne started, but with the dedicated staff helping her the whole way, she was able to create that path for herself. It led her to two internships with a local law office, the law office of David M. Gemignani, PC, and helped her “find that grit” she needed to study for her LSAT, get into law school, find a job and create a successful career.
Payne started as a graphic design major but was drawn to shift her focus to one of her earliest passions in life: politics and law. She began work with political parties as early as the fourth grade but also found a love for art as she grew up. “Practicing law is the marriage between thinking creatively and applying the law to help people through some of the hardest times in their lives.”
She credits Finlandia with helping her effectively apply creativity and grit to get through law school and to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with her partners, who attended much larger undergraduate and law schools.
“The system of due process can be lengthy and complicated. It’s my job to understand how to navigate people through that process,” Payne said. “I get to hold their hand through some difficult times and say, ‘I understand.’ I help people in a way that most people won’t ever get to. It’s a wonderful opportunity to get to practice law, a wonderful profession and I’m still opening that box.”
Her advice for those Finlandia students considering practicing law? Have grit. Have a great work ethic. Take advantage of the support that is available to you.
The common voice from all of these Finlandia University graduates is that they want to practice law in a way that makes a difference in the world. They’ve found their vocation. The path to law school that can be found at Finlandia encourages future lawyers to see law differently; as an endeavor to make the legal system better.Brandon Loera, Brierra Ruska, Criminal Justice, Dr. Richard Gee, Erica Payne, Finlandia Ali, Pre-Law, SCAS, Spring 2018 Edition of the Bridge, the Bridge, Thomas Kerr