Jacqui Arena was an opinionated and outspoken 13-year-old the first time someone told her she should be a lawyer. It took nearly 25 years for her to agree.
In February 2021, deep into a career as certified registered nurse anesthetist at UConn Health, Arena found herself working long hours on legal challenges involving her young stepson, who had been diagnosed with autism.
“I was spending all my spare time reading through statutes and basically doing the work of a lawyer,” she said. “At some point, my husband started telling me I should just go to law school, and here we are.”
Arena started classes in the Evening Division at the UConn School of Law in the fall with a new view of what a legal education could mean in her life.
“I think I’ve always been interested in many facets of the law; however, I decided to go the medical route once I was preparing for college,” she said. “It wasn’t until very recently that I realized that I could do both.”
A native of Meriden, Connecticut, Arena earned a BS in psychology and biology from Fordham University, a BS in nursing from Fairfield University and an MS in nurse anesthesia from Drexel University.
Since 2015, she has worked and taught at UConn Health in Farmington. On work days, she’s up by 4 a.m. so she can be in the operating room to administer anesthesia by 6:30. She lives with her husband, Blake, in North Haven and shares custody of her two daughters, Kaylin and Cami, with her former husband.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Connecticut’s hospitals were overwhelmed, Arena had to make a wrenching choice. Knowing that she was constantly around infected people, she decided it wasn’t safe for her to return home to her young children. For three months, she could not see her daughters in person, other than waving to them through windows, while they stayed with their father. She described that time as the hardest of her life.
When the hospital surge passed and Arena was back to her more normal work schedule, her thoughts turned to law school. The only school she applied to was the UConn School of Law.
“I have a life in Connecticut and I already worked for UConn,” Arena said. “I decided pretty early on it was going to be UConn Law or nothing.”
As she studies law, Arena continues to work full-time. Balancing an enormous workload and her job and family has not been easy, she said, but she thrives in chaos. Her schedule, requiring her to drive around the state daily, reflects that.
Arena is on the UConn Law campus on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday nights. Her work schedule is variable, with her often having to work overnight shifts, but she manages to squeeze in as much time with her husband, daughters and stepson as she possibly can around the edges. She said her approach is straightforward.
“It’s not possible to do everything perfectly with how much I have on my plate,” she said. “I just put my head down and do the best I can on the most I can and try to remember that life is about balance not perfection.”
While the amount of work has at times been overwhelming, Arena said she loves the subject matter. Her favorite class is Civil Procedure, with Associate Dean Jennifer Mailly.
“From the outset, I was so impressed with Jacqui’s drive and commitment to pro bono legal work,” Mailly said. “She immediately contacted me and has demonstrated an incredible passion for helping others and the legal profession.”
While Arena isn’t sure exactly how she wants to use her legal degree, she knows she wants to offer her services in family matters, like the one she has been working through with her stepson. She loves nursing, and has no plans to leave that when she graduates.
“Someday my body won’t be able to do nursing anymore,” Arena said. “Whenever that happens, I can just picture myself on a beach somewhere — editing a brief.”