By Mariam Nouser
Ryerson law students will be able to look forward to an exclusive scholarship opportunity this upcoming winter.
The scholarship called “vs. All-Odds” (Against All Odds) was created by Jordana Goldlist, a criminal defence lawyer in Toronto, who experienced homelessness as a teenager before following her dream career of law.
Goldlist said she hopes students who have overcome any type of adversity to get into law school can benefit from the scholarship.
“From the age of seven until my early teens, I knew I wanted to become a lawyer and specifically a criminal defence lawyer,” said Goldlist. “My life took a turn when I was 12 and I started acting out, eventually being sent to a group home.”
Goldlist said shortly after, her behaviour started to get out of control, which led to her ending up on the streets. She found herself selling marijuana to support herself, but was eventually caught selling on school property and ended up at Vanier Centre for Women, spending four days in solitary confinement before being granted bail. Almost half a year later, she plead guilty and was on probation for two years.
Goldlist’s actions also resulted in her getting expelled from the York Region District School Board at 16 as she later self-represented and appealed her expulsion and attended another school in the same district. Six months after her reinstatement, she dropped out of school because of her life situation.
“My late teens were deeply rooted in the drug subculture of the late ‘90s,” she said. “It became a turning point for me to [go back to school] and stop living the life I was living.”
At 20, Goldlist was looking to go back to school and eventually graduated high school and a year later, went to York University to study philosophy with a full entry scholarship.
Closer to the ending of her undergraduate degree, her childhood dream of becoming a lawyer was in the back of her mind, pushing her to apply to Osgoode Hall Law School at York.
Goldlist was accepted by the school, and at the age of 25 turned her life around. Now, she runs her own criminal defence firm called JHG Criminal Law.
Last year, Goldlist started the scholarship Against All Odds at Osgoode which is now expected to be administered at Ryerson this upcoming winter. Goldlist said the bursary is expected to be available for Ryerson law students for at least the next five years.
She hopes the scholarship can have an impact in three different ways: an initial financial impact on the student recipient, an inspiration for students hoping to pursue law and the public impact of seeing marginalized students get into law school despite all odds.
First-year Ryerson law student Safia Thompson said she is grateful to Goldlist for starting a much-needed scholarship that also addresses issues she’s personally been affected by.
“We will always face systemic and institutionalized racism that makes it harder for us to receive financial support but this contributes to our resilience”
Thompson said funding is crucial to the advancement of marginalized students. While Ryerson’s tuition is less expensive than other law schools in Ontario, the cost is still just under $23,000 a year.
Thompson, who is also the founder and co-president of Ryerson’s Black Law Students’ Association (BLSA – Ryerson), said systematic racism, poverty and sexual abuse among other barriers as things that are not new to her or other Black Indigenous and students of colour (BIPOC).
“I was the recipient of the renewable Andy & Valerie Pringle Law School Scholarship which relieved some of my financial stresses,” Thompson said. “Working while studying is not new to me but now I can work far less and focus more on my studies.”
“My guidance counsellor tried convincing me to take applied courses even though I entered high school as an honour roll student,” said Thompson. “My mother who knew of my learning capabilities told the counsellor ‘You’re not going to do to my Black child what you’ve done to others’ and put me in the academic stream anyway.”
“There is a past and present collective social agreement that if you’re Black, you aren’t as intelligent as other races,” she said. “Black students defy all odds and abolish that narrative by hearing extremely racist views and still excelling in demanding programs.”
Fellow first-year law student and x of BLSA – Ryerson, Shanelle Dover, said she believes entering a new school like Ryerson helps BIPOC students create a space at the table that wasn’t there before.
“Law school was not created so that BIPOC people could get a legal education,” said Dover. “BIPOC law students defy the odds when we disregard them all together as they are typically decided by systems that are working against us.”
“We will always face systemic and institutionalized racism that makes it harder for us to receive financial support but this contributes to our resilience,” said Dover.
Dover also added that being a BIPOC person does not automatically mean one suffers financial constraint. She hopes that as a part of a new law school that is enriching and thoughtful, people like herself will build a true community with future students and in the legal field.
“I want my clients to be treated like humans, not criminals as the justice system tends to paint them”
“[I want] Ryerson Law’s inaugural cohort to be the lawyers who dismantle each and every one of the barriers BIPOC individuals face when engaging in our legal systems.”
Similar to Dover, Thompson said she believes their mission to become lawyers should not just be to provide legal support but to provide tangible access to justice, especially to those from vulnerable communities.
As a lawyer, Goldlist said she always looks to humanize those she represents in the legal system and not write them off.
“I want my clients to be treated like humans, not criminals as the justice system tends to paint them,” said Goldlist. “My clients deserve respect and decency during their trial process.”
For Goldlist, at a young age, she recalled one of her family members being charged for an offence and witnessing the criminal lawyer that was representing them holding such prominence and significance.
It’s one of the reasons she pursued a career in law, against all odds.
“I wanted to be that important to someone else. When the phone rang and he called, everyone was like ‘Oh my god, the lawyer is on the phone, stop what you’re doing,’” said Goldlist. “That level of respect is what I wanted. I wanted to be that important to someone’s family.”
With files from Libaan Osman