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Wingate SGA president gets close look at law school in Duke fellowship program

Camila Collante took part in Duke University Law School’s PreLaw Fellowship Program this summer. Photo by Wingate University

Camila Collante’s interest in the law was sparked at an early age. As a recent immigrant from the Dominican Republic in the early 2010s, Collante’s mother often had to consult with a U.S. immigration lawyer, and the preteen Collante – herself still learning English – helped translate the legalese, with a little help from Google.

“I can assure you that some of the things I first Googled were probably not peer-reviewed,” she jokes.

Collante and her mother muddled through, and today, after more than a few school-related hurdles, Collante is on a prelaw track as a junior at Wingate University.

This summer she took part in Duke University Law School’s PreLaw Fellowship Program, where she attended real law-school classes for a month, interacted with lawyers and judges, and learned what it takes to make it through to the bar exam.

Taking classes at Duke wasn’t even a glimmer of an idea in Collante’s mind in the summer of 2016. She was just trying to get enrolled in high school. Her grades in middle school were subpar, she admits, and she faced pushback from administrators as she tried to enroll in her assigned high school, a 4,500-student school in west Miami.

“They didn’t see that I was worthwhile, or at least that’s how I felt,” Collante says. “They thought of me as another number for them, and a number they didn’t believe in.”

The situation hardened her resolve. Collante worked diligently in high school to improve her English and turn her middle-school D’s into high-school A’s. She wound up graduating with a 3.3 GPA.

Aside from the relative isolation enforced by the Covid-19 pandemic, Collante encountered considerably fewer roadblocks when she entered college in 2020. Picking Wingate University primarily because of its size and location, Collante found empathetic, caring faculty and staff members who wanted to see her succeed. Rather than simply judging Collante on her grades and SAT score, Kevin Winchester, then the director of the Writing Center, asked her for a writing sample before placing her in a freshman English class. Her essay impressed him, and she wound up in English 110, and she’s now an English major who loves technical writing and wants to work in contract law.

“The crazy part is I had never met Mr. Winchester,” she says. “I’d never talked to him. He’d never seen any of my writing. That is when I knew this school doesn’t go by numbers. They go by the people. That’s when I automatically knew that this was the place.”

Dr. Rob Prevost, associate professor of philosophy, challenged her in class and became something of a mentor. Collante’s inquisitive nature impressed Prevost. Last semester, he recommended her for the Duke fellowship.

“She is smart and disciplined, just the kind of student who will prosper at a good law school,” says Prevost, himself a practicing attorney.

The girl with the D’s and F’s in middle school now has a 4.0 grade point average in college.

Tireless worker

After spending a month at Duke, Collante is more certain than ever that law school is in her future. She and the rest of her cohort took classes every day in criminal law, contract law, legal writing and analysis, and property law. Every Friday they prepped for the Law School Admission Test, which Collante plans to take next summer. In the evenings, the Duke PreLaw Fellows went to meet-and-greets with lawyers, district-court judges, the dean of Duke Law School and the president of the North Carolina bar. It was an intense month.

“Although it was only a month, it gave me a clear view not only of what the classes will look like and how the faculty will work in their classrooms, but also why I want to do it,” Collante says.

She was especially happy to get to know Sofia Hernandez, senior assistant city attorney for Durham, who came to the U.S. from Honduras as a girl. Like Collante’s, Hernadez’s mother worked as a house cleaner to support the family while her daughter pursued her law-school dreams.

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Seeing another Latina practicing law was heartening to Collante. “Having more representation is going to help a lot,” she says.

Growing up poor in the Dominican Republic, Collante’s parents had very little schooling. She gets emotional thinking about her parents’ upbringing.

“When my dad was little, he had to go to rivers with buckets to be able to shower,” she says.

Her father went to work at a young age fixing bicycles, not even finishing elementary school. He was good at his work, and early in Collante’s life he owned a pair of bicycle-parts stores. But after going bankrupt, he and the family had to move in with Collante’s grandmother. Soon after, they started making plans to find a better life in the United States.

Collante and her mother moved to the U.S. first, a decade ago. Collante was forced to tag along as her mother went to her appointments with the Miami immigration lawyer. “She was only able to afford 30 minutes at a time with this lawyer, and he spoke hardly any Spanish,” Collante says. “He would talk really quickly.”

Marginally better at English than her mother, Collante translated as best she could. She has been fascinated by the law ever since. A natural facilitator, Collante feels that working in the legal realm suits her. At Wingate she is president of the Student Government Association, where she facilitates conversations between students and the administration. She even still helps her dad, who runs a construction-site-cleanup business, by calling clients for him.

“Being a facilitator is something I would really get to practice every day of my life,” she says of a career in law. “On campus, I’m facilitating student concerns and facilitating the constitution to the executive board, facilitating conversations with President (Rhett) Brown or facilitating conversations between students and administrative bodies.”

Calling her “one of the hardest-working, most honest and capable” students he’s encountered at Wingate, Dr. Mick Reynolds, assistant vice president and dean of campus life, highly recommended her for the Duke program. He praised her for leading the revision of the SGA’s constitution.

“Ms. Collante is organized and a quick study,” he wrote to the admissions committee. “Throughout the process Ms. Collante demonstrated her leadership ability as different constituencies submitted their own revisions, and she worked tirelessly to revise and negotiate between different factions on the Executive Council.”

Prevost, Wingate’s prelaw advisor, praises Collante’s maturity and willingness to speak up and ask questions in class, especially in Philosophy of Religion, in which Collante, now 19, was the youngest student. “That seems a virtue for someone who plans to go into law,” he wrote to the admissions committee.

Collante never saw herself attending Florida International University, Florida Atlantic University or any of the other large public schools in South Florida. For one thing, she would have had a tough time ascending to a leadership position at a school with tens of thousands of students. For another, classes of up to 70 might have impeded her academic progress.

“My philosophy of law class, we’re only eight people,” Collante says. “Every day I learn something new in that class, and it’s because of those conversations we have.”

The more-intimate classrooms and the month at Duke have made Collante more assertive and confident – in short, a good law-school candidate.

“I’m not doubting myself like I used to,” she says. “I doubted myself because I thought maybe I wouldn’t fit into the school. I doubted myself because I thought I just couldn’t learn the language. I doubted myself because I thought I wasn’t smart enough to get into college. Now I’m not doubting myself anymore.”

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