Law School And Beyond: NCC Parent Passes Bar, Builds Legal Career

From left: Shannon Murray, sister; Tyana Murray, Deborah Walker, mother. Front center is Tahyae Fisher.
From left: Shannon Murray, sister; Tyana Murray, Deborah Walker, mother. Front center is Tahyae Fisher.

Tyana Murray admits there were times when she wanted to quit law school. And perhaps she might have—had she not already come so far.

As a single parent, Murray embarked upon the formidable task of pursuing her law degree while also raising her young daughter, Tahyae Fisher, who attended NCC’s Community Hills Early Learning Center in Newark since the age of six months.

“It was definitely a struggle trying to keep it all together,” Murray said. “You need to know how to deal with the cards dealt to you and still prevail through it all,” she said.

Murray successfully took the LSAT, the admissions test for law school, but that was only the first of many hurdles she faced. Due to her family obligations, Murray wanted to attend school locally but ended up getting waitlisted at the Rutgers University School of Law. After weighing her options, she decided to enroll at Northeastern University School of Law, more than 200 miles away in Boston.

“I always knew I wanted to be a lawyer,” said Murray, who became a mother around the time she graduated from New Jersey City University. “Once I had her, it was bigger than me,” she said of her daughter, Tahyae, now 5.

Immediately, Murray mapped out a plan to navigate three years of law school while raising her daughter. She needed a lot of help and leaned on her mother, Deborah Walker, who primarily cared for Tahyae before and after the school day at CHELC. Murray also enlisted the support of other family and friends to fill the gaps.

At the beginning of her first year, Murray hopped a bus from Boston to Newark every weekend to visit her daughter. But soon, the papers and readings started to pile up, so she saw Tahyae every two weeks. “I was very grateful for the school,” Murray said of CHELC, which provided a center of stability for her daughter while Murray was far away. On occasion, CHELC teachers even styled her daughter’s hair, she noted.

Meanwhile at her own school, Murray couldn’t help but feel that she was always trying to catch up to her peers. “I was going into a field where everyone was so smart,” she said. “I was going in with a disadvantage.”

She sacrificed a social life so that she could not only concentrate on her studies but save financially. “I can’t splurge money on trips,” Murray said. “My money is going back home for food and daycare.”

Then in 2014, between her second and third year, Murray suffered the loss of several close relatives in a matter of months. Further, she was torn between the demands of law school and her role as a mother. “It was taking a toll on me emotionally and physically,” said Murray, who described suffering from weight and hair loss as well as depression.

Her only option, she decided, was to buckle down and work even harder. Hemanth Gundavaram, an associate teaching professor at Northeastern, said it clearly paid off for Murray.

“I thought that she was very motivated, very hard working. Really paid attention in class,” he said. While Murray started off as a “good student,” her remarkable progress was what Gundavaram noticed. “She made some of the biggest gains I’ve ever seen,” he said.

At the end of the course, he said he selected Murray to be his teacher assistant for legal writing because she was “such a perfectionist” and had made great strides as a writer and researcher. All the law students who received help from Murray raved about her, Gundavaram said. Law school “seemed like it was very important to her,” he said.

In May of 2015, Murray was one of six members of her class to receive the Denise Carty-Bennia Memorial Bar Award, which aims to expand opportunities for minority students. When Murray received her law degree on May 22, 2015, she and Tahyae crossed the stage hand in hand.

But the challenges weren’t over. She studied for the bar exams in New Jersey, New York and North Carolina—all places that she may end up practicing law—and passed the New Jersey bar exam on her second attempt. (She found out she passed on her birthday on May 17.)  Murray was sworn in as an attorney on June 3, 2016. “It was definitely a great feeling, a humbling feeling,” she said. Murray is now a law clerk for Judge Neil N. Jasey at the Superior Court of New Jersey Essex Vicinage Family Court.

Born in Jersey City, Murray graduated from St. Mary High and attended college at Spelman University for three semesters before transferring to NJCU, where she graduated with a degree in criminal justice in January of 2012. She currently splits her time between Newark and Burlington and also works part time at Wendy’s. Cheryl Mack, director of CHELC, noted during Tahyae’s moving-on ceremony in June that the entire school community was “so proud” of Murray’s accomplishment. In September, Tahyae started kindergarten at North Star Academy.

Murray said she has surmounted many challenges and overcome failures. She remains undeterred and plans to take the North Carolina bar exam again in early 2017. She wants to practice family or criminal law and has a passion for fighting against wrongful convictions.

“I don’t have a plan B,” she said. “I stuck with plan A.

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