Elaina Rankin, a sophomore at Michigan State University, developed an interest in becoming a public defender as a freshman at Avondale High School in Auburn Hills.
It was 2018, and Rankin’s class was assigned an essay for which students could choose from pre-selected prompts or create their own. Rankin chose the latter option, researching jail reform.
“Most people don’t grow up being taught about for-profit prisons, incredibly high recidivism rates, and just how downright destructive incarceration is. This single essay began to widen my thoughts on why the criminal justice system operates, and just how wrong I felt all of this was,” Rankin said.
Six years later, she wrote another essay that was chosen as one of three nationwide recipients of the Miguel Mendez Social Justice Scholarship, a $1,000 prize for low-income, first-generation college freshmen studying social justice with a 3.0 GPA or better. Rankin is a pre-law student studying political science with a minor in law, justice, and public policy. Her ambition is to work as a public defender.
She was picked from a pool of nine contenders, and the winners were revealed on Bold.org on Oct. 16, an organization that bills itself as the largest independent scholarship provider in the United States. Favour Ekott of CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and Sofia Roca of Our Lady of the Lake University in Schertz, Texas were the other two finalists.
Miguel Mendez Villalpando, a first-generation college student from Colorado who died in a paddle boating accident in July 2022, is the recipient of the award. At the time of his death, the 25-year-old Colorado College graduate was pursuing a profession as a paralegal. He majored in sociology with a concentration in immigration.
Applicants were invited to submit a video or essay outlining how they are striving to overcome a personal issue.
Rankin began her letter by describing how she grew up sharing a small bedroom room with her two siblings, a condition that is common to many who grew up with very little.
“Every aspect of our lives when I was young revolved around finances and how to survive. It doesn’t surprise me that many people in similar situations resort to crime purely out of desperation,” she wrote.
Fortunately, Rankin said her parents “never had any felonies or major stints in prison.”
“I understood pretty quickly that we couldn’t afford to have issues like that,” she wrote. “Lawyers cost an arm and a leg and with the financial possibility of one of my parents not being present, my paycheck-to-paycheck household would be unable to function. Seeing how my family could be one misstep away from destruction, I soon realized some of the ways the criminal justice system fails its citizens.”
Once she completes her studies, Rankin looks to join an organization committed to “reforming the prison system.” She said she also plans on working to “educate disadvantaged groups on the legal system.”
“The ability to, in the future, help those with legal issues who deal with similar financial situations I was in throughout my childhood brings me so much joy and purpose,” Rankin wrote. “I am more than committed to providing affordable and free legal services to those who otherwise couldn’t afford it in a system that is far from equitable.”
The Miguel Mendez Social Justice Scholarship is being granted for the second time this year. It was organized by Bold.org and supported by Nancy Roberts of Colorado Springs and ten smaller donors.