Alumna Shares Her Journey From Poverty to Family Law on ‘Inside UVA’
Audio: Inside UVA Episode 7: Natalia Wilson(22:29)
President Jim Ryan 0:00
Since graduating from UVA, have you found any bagels as good as Bodos?
Natalia Wilson 0:08
President Jim Ryan 0:09
Oh, good! Bodos will be happy to hear that.
Well, hi everyone. I'm Jim Ryan, the President of the University of Virginia and I'd like to welcome all of you to the seventh episode of Inside UVA. This podcast is a chance for me to speak with some of the amazing people at the university and to learn more about what they do and who they are. And my hope is that listeners will ultimately have a better understanding of how UVA works and a deeper appreciation of the remarkably talented and dedicated people who make UVA the institution, and the community that it is. I'm thrilled today to welcome Natalia Wilson, who is a 2002 UVA graduate and a principal at a family law firm, Ain & Bank to today's episode of Inside UVA. Natalia, thanks for joining me today.
Natalia Wilson 1:00
Oh, my goodness, thank you so much, President Ryan for having me. I feel very special. Thank you.
President Jim Ryan 1:06
You are the first alum who were talking to about being an alum. And as you recall, we met at a football game, Dean Ian Balcom introduced us. And I was so taken with your life story that I asked you to participate in this podcast. And so I'm thrilled you said yes.
Natalia Wilson 1:28
Yes, I am excited that you thought enough to ask me to join. So thank you.
President Jim Ryan 1:34
So I wonder if we could just go back to meeting in the President's box at Scott Stadium. And can you tell our listeners what you told me about your journey to UVA, and your time at UVA.
Natalia Wilson 1:48
Yeah, so I, I was at that football game, because I'm now on the Greater Washington Regional Alumni Board. And I was invited to one of the first in-person events that we've had. I was actually on-boarded during COVID. And while there, I was talking to Dean Baucom, just about how excited I was to be on the grounds and to be in-person with other alums. And what I shared with him is my experience getting into UVA, and it was one that was full of a lot of fear, fear within my family. I grew up in Virginia Beach, I'm the oldest of six. And the year that I finished high school, I lost a sister. She was born with cerebral palsy. And my senior year there, we had a number of immigration challenges, I would say, and my dad wasn't in the home. So my mom was navigating everything to raise a young family, six small children and one you just lost. And one of the kind of biggest concerns or fears about going to college was how would I actually pay for it. And then also emotional fears for my mom and dad, because they had just lost a child. And when I completed the application for schools, and got accepted to UVA, my mom's biggest concern was, how are we gonna pay for this? And when I called to the university to say, "How am I going to pay for this? My mom is telling me I can't go." Someone answered my call. They told me that I could come and meet with someone in the financial aid office, and, you know, that I would be okay. And I said, "Well, you got to explain this to my Mom. Can I bring her there for you to explain this to my mom?" And so I set up a meeting and my mom and I... I convinced my mom to borrow my cousin's car. So we could get to UVA for this meeting, where I would employ the University of Virginia staff people to help me tell my mom that I would be okay and I can afford it. So that's what happened. I, we showed up and they met with us and my mom was, you know, very clear about what her concerns were and asked, How can this be? How can she have housing? What's going to happen with books? What's going to happen with the tuition? All of these costs, and she was assured in that meeting. Because they told me over the phone that they would tell her that it would be okay and I would be able to attend and everything was taken care of because of scholarships and other financial aid available to me.
President Jim Ryan 4:32
And did your mom not quite believe it when she heard the story?
Natalia Wilson 4:36
Not at all. They had to show her on paper. I had already shown her the paperwork. We had to get to the university she had to look in the eye and the woman was so kind and patient with us in that meeting and walked my mom through it. My mom was like "and there no loans? Really, there are no loans?" And so they they assured her and I was, at that point, able to attend.
President Jim Ryan 5:04
And what led you to apply to UVA in the first place?
Natalia Wilson 5:08
So my dad is an immigrant from Panama. And my dad is actually the the one who suggested that I apply to the University of Virginia. He knows all things about American history and the University of Virginia. I think the year I was graduating UVA may have been doing very well in sports or something. I'm not sure exactly. But my dad suggested that I applied to UVA. And that year, because we were from a family with low income, my school counselor had me applied for stipends or financial aid for the application process. And I got a number of application vouchers. And so my guidance counselor actually helped me sort of navigate that whole process. But my dad suggested that I applied to the University of Virginia. And so that was top on my list.
President Jim Ryan 6:06
And so tell me a little bit about your time as a student.
Natalia Wilson 6:10
So, UVA, when I first got there, I, you know, I don't come from a family of college graduates or professionals on either side. I'm the first generation in my family to go to college. And so I had no idea what to expect once I got there. And so when I got to UVA, I kind of latched on to people that knew how it should be and how you can navigate because I didn't have any examples of that. I studied foreign affairs while I was there and I minored in Spanish. As I think I shared, my dad is from Panama. So his first language is Spanish, and foreign affairs, because of my personal background as well, with my dad being from another country,
President Jim Ryan 6:57
Right. And what sort of things did you do outside of class?
Natalia Wilson 7:01
It's funny now, because I'm on the board that is a fundraising arm to alumni [becasue] when I was at UVA, I worked at the Phone-a-Thon, which was you call alum and you ask them to make a donation. And any given night, the award would be a pizza. And it was, you know, something great to have for someone that was just warming up oodles of noodles in their microwave in their little dorm room. So I did I did that for work. I worked at the Phone-a-Thon. But also, you know, being the oldest of six, on weekends and different things, I would go home to Virginia Beach to help my mom. Yeah, I just kind of got lost in the work of my academics and wanting to succeed because I knew I wanted to go to law school after college, and worked at the Phone-a-Thon for many years trying to raise dollars for the university.
President Jim Ryan 7:56
Are your parents still alive? If you don't mind my asking?
Natalia Wilson 7:59
Yeah, they are.
President Jim Ryan 8:01
Are they proud that you graduated from UVA and are now a lawyer?
Natalia Wilson 8:06
Yeah, so my dad, since I was three, told me, I would be a lawyer and that I was his lawyer. So that's how I had the audacity to think that this was possible. You know, growing up, you know, I was the translator and the lawyer being the oldest of six. And so, you know, my dad kind of put this idea in my head at a very young age, I had no idea what it took to become a lawyer or even go to college. But I was told that this was possible for me by the superheroes in my life, my mom and dad. To say that they are grateful to the University of Virginia is an understatement, obviously, from a, you know, financial perspective, but then here now she sees how I how I grew at the university how, you know, I've formed a lot of my core principles today, things that helped me in my practice today. Both my mom and dad are so grateful. My dad actually is a cab driver in Panama. And his entire taxi is covered in UVA memorabilia. So Wahoo Dad, UVA Dad, some of it is peeling off, but it's there. And my dad tells anybody who gets in this cab. He tells everybody his daughter went to the University of Virginia and he told her she was going to be a lawyer, and she actually did it. And so yeah, he is UVA proud in Panama, Panama City, Panama.
President Jim Ryan 9:41
Great story. So I'm curious if you had to offer one or two pieces of advice to current students. What would you tell them?
Natalia Wilson 9:50
So I've had some great mentors through my career. But I sat in on a talk years ago with a managing partner of a firm that I have a relationship with here in Washington, DC. And she shared that she had a board of advisors. And when I was sitting there, I realized that I already have one, you know, my mom and dad are on my board of advisors. I have Law School professors who saw talent in me that I didn't know I had, that are on my board of advisors. I have former UVA friends and other alums that are on my board of advisors. And you don't have to have a formal relationship with these people, they don't even have to know they're on your board of advisors, right. And I know when to call, right? Be mentors yourself. Things that you know, not only seek mentors out and allow those relationships to morph into whatever they need to be, but also offer help to others. And I know the difference that can make when you have someone who looks like you, talks like you, has a similar background as you, doing something that you want to do. You then all of a sudden believe it is possible. That's what I would say.
President Jim Ryan 11:07
Those are great pieces of advice. And how did you decide to practice in family law?
Natalia Wilson 11:15
So I, I went to law school at American University, Washington College of Law, to be an immigration lawyer, because I was my dad's lawyer at three.
President Jim Ryan 11:26
You had you had experience already!
Natalia Wilson 11:28
I had experience! Real life experience. And so I thought going to, you know, American which had an incredible immigration program, international program. And so that's why I was so attracted to it. And I got there and I did an externship with a solo practitioner who specialized in immigration work. And I was bored. I was bored out of my mind. The type of immigration cases that my supervisor handled were employee based petitions. And so I never interacted with the client, we worked closely with HR folks. And I got a picture of our client, that I then... like a passport photo, little square... that I stapled to an application where I checked some boxes. And it was kind of like alphabet soup, you just figured out where someone fit within the immigration spectrum, you stapled their picture and went off, you crossed your fingers that all went well, and they got their H1-B or whatever visa you are applying for. And I tried to convince her to do family based petitions, because that's all I understood, right? From my personal experience with immigration, my dad. And I soon realized in practicing with her, that's not the only type of immigration and not everybody wants to be you know, as you know, connected and you know, client driven. And it was very easy... not easy work. But she could predict what the budget would yield based on the number of visas that she could get for any tech company she was working with. And the family based petitions were a little bit more complicated, and would require a different type of practice. And so I did, in my second year at law school, the lottery for clinic. And clinic is a way that you can as a student, learn exactly what it's like to be a lawyer, you can get to go into the courtroom. And so I signed up for that did a lottery checked off a couple of boxes, and I got selected for for the women in the Law Clinic. And I thought it was going to be like gender based petitions of you know, gender policy issues. And my first case was a domestic violence case. And my partner and I, we were student attorneys, we had a two-day trial in DC Superior Court as student attorneys. And we had a supervisor, we went out to the scene, we interviewed witnesses, we took pictures, and we won. At the end of our presentation of the evidence over two days, we walked out of the courtroom, and the client gave us a hug, like literally pulled me close and embraced me. It was very different from my immigration experience. And I was hooked from there. I mean, it was really family law felt like, I mean, I won the lottery because it was exactly what I wanted to do. And so I've done it ever since it was my focus throughout as I finished law school. I now teach at American University, Washington College of Law. And it's just been incredible. And now I'm able to, you know, touch families in ways that I, you know, I did at three. So I'm well beyond my years in terms of experience, right?
President Jim Ryan 15:07
Well, it also seems like it's come full circle. I mean, you have had help from people along the way. And now you are paying it forward and and helping other people. And it sounds to me like, you enjoy that you actually get to know your clients, and they are real people, and not just a name on a forum or a passport photo.
Natalia Wilson 15:27
President Jim Ryan 15:28
So, Natalia, you had mentioned that you had formed relationships with other students and had some teachers who are great mentors. So I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your favorite teacher.
Natalia Wilson 15:41
Okay. So I have many, I mean, there have been so many people along the way, just sort of recognize something in me that I didn't even sort of think about. And so one of my teachers in high school, when I was applying to colleges, she helped me sort of frame my personal statement as a letter to the President, because I had all of these issues with immigration policy in the United States. And that's all I wanted to talk about my senior year. You know, I didn't want it to not appeal, but also didn't know what to write about. And the only thing I cared about, that was keeping me up at night as a senior in high school, with a family who was struggling and really, really wanted my dad to be home, and all of those things, was, you know, how I felt about the United States and its immigration policies. You know, she actually said to me, well write a letter about it, or write about that. And that's all it took for me to sort of recognize that it's okay to accept where you are and make that yours, right. So whatever it is that you're pursuing, and if it doesn't fit the kind of framework that folks are used to, or even if you don't even know what the framework is that people are used to, if you have someone who can tell you, it's okay. Do what you're thinking, she did that, for me, it was a light bulb that just kind of went off. And it really helped me, I like to say, that's why I got into University of Virginia, was my letter to the United States President. And it was all because of my teacher. And she, you know, was the reason why I took AP courses, why I even knew we had that, I needed to do that, you know, she would talk to my mom and say, you know, you may want to put Natalia in this, you may want to consider this, because these weren't things that we were talking about at home. If we have alum that are out there that are teachers, I would say, you never know how what you are sharing will impact a student.
President Jim Ryan 17:53
Yeah, it's a great reminder, right, that we might assume that, you know, most people understand how the system works, whatever the system is, whether it's applying to college or something else, and not realize that they don't. And, you know, I had the same experience as you, parents who didn't go to college, and there were teachers in my high school who pushed me and encouraged me and my parents always wanted me to go to college, but they didn't understand that world. And so it took someone who understood the world to give me guidance.
Natalia Wilson 18:27
President Jim Ryan 18:28
So tell me just a little bit about how you stay involved with UVA. You're talking about being on the Greater Washington Board...
Natalia Wilson 18:36
I joined the board during COVID. So I've only met my fellow board members on computer screens, and you know, little square boxes, except for when I was able to meet you in-person at the football game. So one of the one of the first things I did after landing a real job and having some earnings is, start to give back to the university. Showing my gratitude to the University of Virginia has always been a big... of significant importance to me. And so, following UVA and then law school, I started to write a small check and then it you know, started to grow. I put the University of Virginia in my first will. And it's mostly because of what it gave to me and I always wanted to be able to show my gratitude to let the university know how much I appreciate it what it did for me, it gave me a chance when I didn't know that I would have one. It helped me convince my mom that it would work out. And you know it's paid on that promise. Because we really, you know, were able to successfully get me out of there without barriers because of economic disparities. And so I wanted to be able to demonstrate that following my graduation at UVA.
President Jim Ryan 20:10
Well, on behalf of UVA, we appreciate it.
Natalia Wilson 20:14
Thank you. Well, I wish I could do more. I haven't visited the University as much as I would like. I did get stuck there, which was welcomed. I went to an event for the Virginia Trial Lawyers Institute, they hosted a CLE at UVA a few years ago, and we all got stuck at the Boar's Head, because the snow came in, and a bunch of people wanted to get out. And I sort of said, "I'll just see how this goes.: So it mean, it's fun. It's a funny story now, because a number of the judges that I appear in front of, they also get stuck. So you get to, you know, you get to know the judges in your community on a different level. When you're all stuck together. We're all the same. Right?
President Jim Ryan 21:06
So did you go sledding with the judges?
Natalia Wilson 21:09
I hope there are no pictures of that. Do you know something I don't?
President Jim Ryan 21:17
Well, Natalia, thank you so much for sharing your story. And thanks on behalf of UVA for your continued support and engagement. And I hope to see you at many more football games in the future.
Natalia Wilson 21:31
And thank you so much for your time and interest and anything I can do for UVA, it's done so much for me. And I'm so grateful to be having this conversation with you and to be able to share my my journey. And what UVA has meant to me.
President Jim Ryan 21:49
It's an inspiring story. So thanks again. Thank you.
Mary Garner McGehee 21:56
Inside UVA is a production of WTJU 91.1 FM and the Office of the President at the University of Virginia. Inside UVA is produced by Mary Garner McGehee, Brooke Whitehurst, Matt Weber and Nathan Moore. We also want to thank Natalia Wilson, Monica Shack and McGregor McCance. Thanks for listening.
“I was so taken with your life story that I asked you to participate in this podcast.”
With those words, University of Virginia President Jim Ryan opened episode seven of his program, “Inside UVA.” Designed to highlight the inner workings of UVA, this week’s episode is a first, in that it features an alumna. Previous episodes have featured members of Ryan’s administration and the student chair of the Honor Committee.
Ryan first met Natalia Wilson, a 2002 graduate and family lawyer, at a football game earlier this fall. Wilson, who is a member of UVA’s Greater Washington Regional Alumni Board, was in Charlottesville for one of the group’s first in-person events since the onset of the coronavirus.
Wilson is a Virginia Beach native and one of six children. As she was applying to college, her mother was temporarily raising her children alone as her husband, a Panamanian, was out of the country.
It was a deeply emotional time for Wilson’s family, made even more painful after one of her siblings died. “She was born with cerebral palsy. And my senior year, we had a number of immigration challenges. … And my dad wasn’t in the home, so my mom was navigating everything to raise a young family, six small children and one [she] just lost,” Wilson told Ryan.
Money was tight and her mother worried how the family would pay college tuition. “When I completed the application for schools and got accepted to UVA, my mom’s biggest concern was ‘How are we going to pay for this?’
“And when I called to the University to say, ‘How am I going to pay for this? My mom is telling me I can’t go,’ someone answered my call. They told me that I could come and meet with someone in the financial aid office and that I would be OK. And I said, ‘Well, you’ve got to explain this to my mom,’” Wilson laughed.
After trying her hand at immigration law, inspired by her father’s travails, Wilson today practices family law and also teaches at American University’s Washington College of Law, where she earned her degree.
You can learn more about her journey by tuning into this week’s episode of “Inside UVA” and catch up on previous shows, which can be found on most podcast apps, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Podcasts.