When Joleen Parks graduates on Saturday in the first class to complete Elon Law's new 2.5-year program, it will be her next chapter in a life radically changed five years ago in the skies over North Carolina.
It was a new type of parachute that Staff Sgt. Joleen Parks wore as she fell from a Blackhawk helicopter five years ago during a routine training exercise. Her normal responsibilities had little to do with jumping from aircraft, but when you serve in Psychological Operations, part of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, you’re required to do this sort of thing every few months.
The jump was to be among the last training exercises Parks would complete before packing her bags and leaving for Mauritania in West Africa to use her anthropology degree, and her Army training in the art of public persuasion, to combat the creeping influence of Boko Haram, a regional Islamic State terror group.
She leaned out the chopper’s open door. The onboard jumpmaster tapped her shoulder and Parks pushed herself free of the Blackhawk with no idea that it would be her last leap for the U.S. Army. Or her first step toward a legal career.
Joleen Parks was the oldest of five children born to her father, a welder, and a mother who worked as an EMT in a small Idaho town. Growing up in a two-bedroom home, Parks loved books and was “the kid who had to have someone come and take away the book at night and turn off the light.” She was also the first in her family to enroll in a four-year university, eventually graduating from Boise State University in 2005 with a degree in anthropology.
Parks flirted with the idea of law school but felt a stronger calling. A brother had enlisted in the U.S. Army after the September 11 terror attacks and their grandfather had served in the Airborne between World War II and the Korean War. Besides, she reasoned, what better way to put an anthropology degree to practical use than to help foster national unity in Iraq, the cradle of civilization?
“It’s easy for us to say, ‘First I’m American, then I’m a North Carolinian,”” Parks said. “For them, tribe comes first. We were the ones who put the borders on their map, after all.” She discovered the benefits and opportunities of her work during a 2007 tour in Baghdad as she helped organizations host events that brought together Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish communities fractured by war.
After a short stint in the Reserves and the arrival of a daughter, Parks returned to active duty in 2011. She and her Air Force husband, Aaron, had again located to North Carolina for military service, and it was over the weedy fields of Fort Bragg that she found herself falling to the earth before deployment to Africa.
She recognized it on impact, the excruciating pain in her ankle and back. Parks lay on the ground for a moment before hobbling out of the jump zone. What was diagnosed was a severely sprained ankle and damaged spinal discs that forced the Army to yank Parks from her mission to Africa – “I was not happy about that at all, to put it mildly” – and onto desk duty. Less than two years later, Parks was medically retired. “What do I do with my life?” she remembers asking herself. “I was 32 and retired and staring at myself, saying, ‘what do I do now?’”
A Boise State classmate provided the answer: law school. A few months after her discharge, Parks was on the phone with her friend, a public defender in Minnesota who reminded Parks of earlier interest in the legal profession. She started researching schools and discovered Elon Law.
Beginning in August 2015, Parks commuted every day from her home near Fort Bragg to Greensboro. It required help from neighbors and family for child care – and little room for error. If a class or program changed its start time, Parks often missed the activity, either arriving later or leaving early because of family obligations.
Parks knew early in her studies that public interest work was her calling. Growing up in rural Idaho, where many families lived modestly, it was easy to see disparate treatment in the courts. Those with money had lawyers handle simple matters like traffic tickets or misdemeanor charges. Those who lacked money often faced license suspensions and possible jail time for similar infractions. A minor nuisance for some people could, for others, lead to a loss of job, or a loss of child custody.
Then there was her military training. The U.S. Army further refined her focus. There was the discipline. In Psychological Operations, there was always the need to quickly analyze complex situations and, more importantly, to assess the motives of the people around her. The summer after her first year at Elon Law, Parks interned for a local district attorney, helping prosecutors strike prospective jurors from a felony trial because of body language and reactions to statements in the courtroom.
“She’s extremely bright. She’s great with communicating with people, which, particularly in public defense work, your ability to communicate with all types of people is important,” said Emily Mistr, who guided Parks during her subsequent Elon Law residency-in-practice at the Wake County Public Defender’s Office. “You know that she has a long story that has been difficult at times, but she still maintains a positive attitude and clearly has a desire to help people.”
Later, at Elon Law’s Humanitarian Immigration Law Clinic, Parks assisted a client with a minor criminal record referred to the clinic by an immigrant advocacy organization. In another instance, Parks wrote a brief in connection with an asylum case for a West African woman who had suffered from extreme forms of gender-based violence and risked being subjected to female genital mutilation if returned to her home country.
“Joleen proved to be a zealous advocate for her clients,” said Katherine Reynolds, a clinical practitioner in residence at the clinic and Parks’ supervising attorney. “She found solutions to every obstacle that stood in the way of preparing a complete application, securing evidence for refugees facing hardships in health, age, and accessibility. And she always brought an interesting perspective to discussions on immigration policy, shaped in part by her military service.”
Though you won’t notice at first glance, Parks does it all with constant pain. Her back injury from the training jump, using a new parachute system that was under evaluation, haunts her still. Doctors have recommended she consider additional surgeries. As a law student and mother, that’s not happening soon. “I don’t have time,” she said, “to lay on my back for 12 weeks to heal.”
One hundred and eleven students in Elon University School of Law’s Class of December 2017 will receive degrees on Saturday in the first Commencement program to take place under a new curriculum that emphasizes practical training unlike any other law school in the United States.
Graduates will have completed the same number of credit hours as their counterparts in other institutions but in less time and with a full-time, course-connected residency-in-practice during part of their second year. By completing their studies in 2.5 years rather than the traditional three years for which law schools are known, Elon Law graduates will gain early entry into the profession at a cost savings in both tuition and living expenses.
Commencement will feature an address by Chief Justice Mark Martin of the Supreme Court of North Carolina. Parks will be seated among the graduates with her husband, Aaron, their 8-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son in the audience. “Our daughter is excited and proud of her mom. She’s been to a few events at the school and she got to listen in and hear judges. It helps her understand a little bit and it’s helped her excitement grow,” Aaron Parks said. “This has been one heckuva ride, a journey, getting to where we are today. She really worked hard.”
Once the ceremony is over, and after the bustle of the holidays fades, Parks will begin studying in earnest for the North Carolina Bar Exam.
Her goal is to work as a public defender. She wants to help those who have little or nothing to their name. Her military experience, and the lessons she learned as an Elon Law student, align with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson that Parks frequently cites: “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived, this is to have succeeded.”
“I thought I was poor when I was growing up, but once you see the way women and children in the Middle East live, we had everything compared to them,” Parks said. “I’ve worked my butt off for 20 years, but I have so much! If I can give back to those with less than me… I’ve succeeded.”