Karen DeMeola has been doing diversity work since she joined the UConn School of Law staff 22 years ago. Now, what she called a side gig has become her full-time job as the inaugural assistant dean for diversity, belonging and community engagement.
DeMeola ’96 started as a civil rights litigator after graduating from UConn Law, then returned to campus as director of admissions in 2000. Addressing incoming students at orientation in that role, she set a tone for inclusivity and representation.
“I would tell them ‘I am a tattooed, adopted biracial lesbian who was raised Italian,’” she said. “Students would approach me after and tell me they related to some part of that statement. Everything I do outside of the law school — committees, panels, conferences, and commissions — is related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. It feels good to be able to officially do the work.”
This is a new position at the law school, one Dean Eboni S. Nelson views as integral to advancing the excellence of the law school by elevating diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging.
“Although every member of our law school community shares the responsibility of furthering these important values, having a dedicated and compassionate leader with the necessary expertise to coordinate our efforts is critical to achieving meaningful progress and institutional success,” she said. “Dean DeMeola is that leader, and UConn Law is very fortunate that she has agreed to share her considerable knowledge and talents in these important areas with our law school community on a more official basis.”
In the new role, DeMeola will work with various faculty, staff, and student committees including the Diversity, Equity and Belonging Committee and the student-led Diversity Alliance. DeMeola is looking forward to returning to a student-facing role, something she has missed while serving as assistant dean for finance and administration for the past four years. She enjoys getting to know students and learning what’s important to them. In her new position, she will work with students, faculty and staff on their concerns and think about how the law school can become more anti-racist and inclusive.
Fostering an inclusive community was also DeMeola’s mission when she served as president of the Connecticut Bar Association in 2017-18. She said she engaged in difficult conversations with people who were nervous about her approach, but in the end, many of them came to appreciate that her emphasis on inclusivity meant that everyone had a place.
That’s the feeling DeMeola wants for UConn Law — everyone has a place — and it’s a feeling she has already cultivated.
Yamuna Menon ’11, general counsel and assistant state comptroller for the state of Connecticut, met DeMeola through advocacy work with the Lambda Law Society before Menon even applied to law school. She said she would not have attended UConn Law if it were not for DeMeola.
“Karen was a big part of making me feel I had a place on campus and my diversity belonged on campus,” Menon said. “It’s overall how she interacts with folks. She will give you her time, her attention. She makes you feel like your voice is important, your perspective is important, and everyone else’s is too.”
DeMeola is especially proud of her work as co-chair of the bar association’s ongoing Constance Baker Motley Speaker Series on Racial Inequality. That pride is for the subject matter and in recognizing Motley, the first Black woman in the country to serve as a federal judge.
DeMeola is always surprised when people do not know who Motley was. Seeing Black women in positions of power within the legal profession was a great reminder to DeMeola that she could do it.
Now, she is that reminder to others.
“I cannot overstate possibly how important representation is,” Menon said. “Students need to see that law school administration does not have one type. It’s really important for us to see, because someone like me sees there’s someplace for me to belong. There’s no better person for this than Karen.”