Many law students have a catalyzing experience that propels them to law school.
Arleigha Cook had two.
A member of New England Law | Boston’s part-time Class of 2021, Cook managed to overcome the horrors of sexual assault and a mild traumatic brain injury, both as a college student. These experiences could’ve broken her; instead, they taught her about the power of the law and pushed her to become an advocate for others. This is her story.
Soccer was Arleigha Cook’s life. She had been playing since she was a child, so she was thrilled to be recruited for Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Even as a freshman, she was among the top players on the women’s team, and four years on the field seemed to stretch out ahead of her.
Then, a couple months into her first season, she sustained a blow to the forehead, resulting in a concussion. Initially, Cook wasn’t too concerned. She had concussions before, and they normally lasted just a few days.
This one was different.
"I was instantly massively affected by this hit,” Cook says. It sent her into post-concussion syndrome, effectively ending her soccer career. “It just completely ended my identity as I knew it," she says. "In a second, it was a 180˚ of how I experienced life."
Beyond no longer playing soccer, having a mild traumatic brain injury colored virtually every aspect of Cook’s life. “Talking to people was hard,” she says. “Showers hurt, because it felt like things were falling on my head, which was really jarring.” Cook did what she could to heal, attending vestibular rehabilitation therapy to stabilize her vision and walking, changing the structure of her days to allow for more breaks and sleep, and working with her college professors to modify assignments as needed.
"I remember walking up to the disability coordinator's office and being like, 'How did I find myself here?'" she says.
Working with the school’s disability coordinator, Cook realized Trinity didn’t have an internal policy for supporting students who had been concussed. This was also around the time when awareness of the dangers of concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) was increasing in sports culture in general.
The experience gave her pause—and inspiration. Cook saw how widespread the concussion issue was, and she ended up testifying on behalf of a related bill before the Connecticut State Legislature Committee on Children and speaking out about the need for more concussion awareness and policy across the state, including at universities and neuroscience conferences.
Cook decided to take action at school as well, tapping into Trinity’s standout neuroscience program and her network of athletes to create a collection of available education and support resources for students. She eventually found herself sitting in rooms full of "extraordinary people," including the college's general counsel, concussion specialists, neuroscience department heads, and athletic trainers. Together, they ultimately helped Trinity develop an official concussion policy (which was "super cool," Cook says with a grin).
But the hits kept coming.
Cook was sexually assaulted her junior year of college.
"It is really hard,” she says. “I think a lot of people come out of situations or experiences like [sexual violence] and they, like me, felt like they had absolutely no personal agency anymore.”
In an effort to regain that agency, Cook decided to find a pro bono attorney and challenge the college’s handling of the situation by going through their hearing process. But this wasn’t the kind of trial typically depicted on screen; it was a private, internal proceeding—one Cook found severely lacking.
"I saw all of the limitations that this institution had," she says. "With just a little bit of thinking and a little bit of training, the school could have been so much better prepared and way less traumatizing."
For example, during the hearing and per the school’s policies, Cook had to speak for herself, despite having an attorney present. And she had to testify while her assailant was sitting just on the other side of a barrier. “As if that would help me be less traumatized," she says, matter-of-factly.
Each case you read, each topic you cover, each question you ask, each time you're cold-called, you become a little bit more of an attorney and a little bit stronger as a person.
But going through that experience, Cook was again exposed to legal fundamentals that resonated with her. "I found myself coming up with follow-up questions that challenged things he said, which, now that I'm in law school, I understand really diminished his credibility," she says.
Though Cook thinks her assailant’s punishment wasn't adequate for the different policies he violated, she effectively “won” her case and gained a life-changing perspective on the power of policy.
"That ended up being really formative for me," she says. "I just saw that there is so much that I could do if I went to law school to help change some of the cultural and social aspects of daily life that I think not only could help a lot of people but could really restore confidence in myself."
Cook chose to attend law school part time because of finances, and she received a full scholarship for New England Law’s evening JD program. Despite the formidable obstacles she had already overcome as a student, Cook felt intimidated by the law school application process. But the scholarship she received blew her away, she says, and was a meaningful vote of confidence in her ability to succeed in law school.
"Generally, I'm very thankful for a million things, but New England Law is very high on that list," Cook says. "Each case you read, each topic you cover, each question you ask, each time you're cold-called, you become a little bit more of an attorney and a little bit stronger as a person."
Since arriving at New England Law three years ago, the community has made all the difference. "Our school is so tight-knit. I think that kind of environment has brought out the best in me as a student," Cook says. "The professors specifically create this culture that you just don't find anywhere else…I don't feel like I'm lost in a sea of people.”
Now Cook recommends the part-time JD path, because "it gives evening students the opportunity to really develop their careers before they become an attorney." She currently works full time at a tech company as a contracts manager, where the attorneys she works with tell her she's already ahead of the curve. She says other law students should seize similar opportunities if given the chance.
"As a student, if you can find a company or a situation where you're entrusted with a little bit of responsibility...and really use that opportunity to the fullest extent you can, you can put yourself so far ahead,” Cook says. “I think that's been one of the biggest advantages of the evening program. It's amazing."
Like many law students, Cook is still considering her post-graduate career options. Though she’d like to stay in her current position, she can also see herself helping others with the law in more direct ways.
"Some of the issues that I've already experienced in twenty-six years of life seem really big. And I want to honor them in a way that also honors other people's experiences with them," Cook says. "For now, I know that I can help people create policy, and I can help people draft contract language that protects their interests. They’re all just little pieces of who I eventually see myself becoming."
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