From Ellis Island to America: Understanding How Opportunities Are Different Than Promises – in Life and in Law School

WMU-Cooley Professor Victoria Vuletich

WMU-Cooley Professor Victoria Vuletich

This blog author, Professor Victoria V. Vuletich joined the full-time WMU-Cooley faculty in 2008 after working with the State Bar of Michigan since 1999. As the Deputy Division Director of the Professional Standard’s Division, Prof. Vuletich advised attorneys regarding ethical dilemmas and practical issues they were facing. She is a frequent presenter on legal ethics issues and is a member of an ad hoc task force that advocated and proposed legislation to address the victimization of immigrants by “notarios.” Here is her story about what she learned from her “Nana,” Christina Fidel Vuletich, about opportunity.


In this picture of me with my Nana, I imagine her looking at me, thinking with much satisfaction, that I would have opportunities she never had, thanks to her sacrifices.  And I know now that she was right. My paternal grandmother, as she would say, “came over from the Old Country.” Making the perilous voyage at the height of the Great Depression, she and her husband lost their baby daughter on the journey across the Atlantic. When she landed at Ellis Island she knew only two words of English.

My only picture of Nana. Here she is relaxing in the backyard, while my father is in the background working on something, and me off on the side in the stroller.

My only picture of Nana. Here she is relaxing in the backyard, while my father is in the background working on something, and me off on the side in the stroller.

She soon made her way to Colorado where she lived in the high Rocky Mountains – in a tent!  She eked out a living doing miner’s laundry (and, well, doing a little bootlegging on the side too.) It took her two years living in the tent to save enough money to obtain shelter that had four solid walls and a roof.  As a little girl I remember asking my father why she would save soap shavings and used pieces of tinfoil that we would normally throw away. His response that she was once so desperately poor that such scraps had value to her was something I could not comprehend.

It took many years for me to mature and appreciate why she made that desperately hard undertaking – opportunity.  And really, it wasn’t as much about opportunity for her, as it was opportunity for her children and grandchildren.

She was faced with signs:  “No Italians need apply.”   And opportunities were quietly denied her, as often there were no signs signaling her when she was wasting her time pursuing this person or that company.  The attitude was there, just hidden.

Each term, in the very last class, I tell my students that they should be proud to attend WMU-Cooley Law School.  All law schools are founded upon the notions of justice, equality and opportunity.  But we are one of the few law schools that “walk the talk.”  We believe in giving people a chance – an opportunity to improve their lives.  A few years ago, one of our students came in under the PEP program – a program for students who do not meet the admission criteria.  Next term, she will be graduating at the top of her class with several semesters of straight A’s behind her.   When I first started teaching, I had a student who grew up in a shack in Mississippi with no running water (yes, in the 1990s.) She has now returned to Mississippi as a successful practicing lawyer.

I tell my students that they should be proud that they go to a school that practices the greatest principles our nation was founded upon. Day in and day out. Year after year after year.  We give people an opportunity that they may not otherwise have.

Because of my grandmother and our family’s culture, I understand that opportunities are different than promises.  No one promises us anything.  (Which may be an odd thing for a lawyer to say as contracts are, after all, promises.) But nothing kills justice and equality more thoroughly than the lack of opportunities.  Not the lack of promises.

Nothing thrills me more than helping people seize the opportunity.  Not just because it is a good thing to do and because it is my job.  It is much more sacred than that.  Helping people improve their lives, and the lives of their children and grandchildren, well that is, as the commercial says: priceless. In some small way I also feel that I am honoring my grandmother when my colleagues on the faculty and staff work to help people each and every day seize the opportunity. It is work for the ages.

What has your “nana” taught you or how has she made an impact on your life? Share below.

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