When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Patti Garwood was just a few months into her first year at the UConn School of Law. Adapting to remote classes was a challenge, but far from the first she had faced.
Garwood grew up in Jamaica and planned to pursue a career in law there. She passed her college entrance exams and was getting ready to enroll when a visit to her father and stepmother in Connecticut changed everything. Her parents urged her to change course and study in the United States.
“I was very bitter at first because I didn’t prepare to be here,” said Garwood, who graduated from UConn Law with a JD on Sunday. She began her U.S. education at Capital Community College in Hartford, bewildered by an educational system very different from the one she knew. Yet she adapted quickly.
“Capital was one of those experiences that I would never change because I was exposed to what the United States is,” she said. “Different cultures and different nationalities, different ages, different backgrounds in every regard that you can imagine, sitting in one classroom — and I could absorb all of that.”
After graduating from Capital, Garwood continued her studies at the University of Hartford, majoring in journalism. She took a job in the insurance industry and in 2019 enrolled at UConn Law. Then came the pandemic.
“I am very social and so that was difficult,” she said. Although she valued the chance to study from Jamaica and spend time with her family, she struggled along with her classmates to stay connected.
The pandemic exacerbated the sense of isolation that many students, particularly students of color or members of other marginalized communities, already faced. Asian American students were especially stressed.
Garwood found herself working on that problem with the law school’s Diversity Alliance in the midst of the pandemic. Even before the campus reopened, the alliance continued a series of workshops to talk with the faculty about diversity, equity, inclusion and the challenges many students face.
Topics included the pain that students feel when they are misgendered, when professors ignore comments that are racially insensitive, and when students feel as if they don’t belong in the classroom where they are trying to learn. In one session about impostor syndrome, Garwood said, she was overcome with her own emotions about feeling like an outsider.
“When you come into spaces that you are not familiar with and there are not a lot of people like you, there’s a displacement there. And you’re thinking, well, if there aren’t people like me, that must mean that I don’t belong here,” she said.
The faculty sessions were “overwhelmingly positive,” Garwood said. “We’ve seen different faculty come at different times. We’ve had people who have been there from the beginning and continued to attend every single session, and then we have new people filtering in and out.”
In addition to her work with the Diversity Alliance, Garwood has been active in the Black Law Students Association and its outreach and mentoring programs for students in Hartford high schools. She served as a member of the Connecticut Moot Court Board and as co-managing editor of the Connecticut Insurance Law Journal. She also completed 100 hours of pro bono service during her law school career, including service with Greater Hartford Legal Aid monitoring eviction procedures. Before commencement, the faculty honored her with the George and Lorraine Schatzki Award for outstanding service to the school.
Garwood will begin work this summer as an associate in the Connecticut office of Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani LLP, having followed a path that she could not always choose but could always make her own.