Lorena Jiron ’17 steps firmly out of comfort zones and deep into areas of engagement.
When Lorena Jiron, the daughter of immigrant parents, finished college, she decided she wanted to live for some time outside the United States. It would be easy to imagine her choosing Central America, where her parents are from, as the place to settle down. But Jiron doesn’t take the easy alternative. Instead, she picked Egypt and packed her bags. Just when she started settling in to North Africa and gaining a grasp of Arabic, another destination came calling: Afghanistan, a country that would provide Jiron with not only a job but also a cultural awakening.
A college friend of Jiron’s hired her to teach at the School of Leadership Afghanistan, a girls-only boarding school designed to help further women’s educational and leadership opportunities. In the time she lived in Kabul, Jiron said she learned more about herself than during any other stage of her young life.
“As someone raised to be independent in a country where going somewhere alone is not considered suspicious activity, I found it incredibly difficult living in countries where internal tensions from war to the Arab Spring contributed to a restive society,” Jiron said. “In Afghanistan, there were many days when we wouldn’t leave the school house because it wasn’t safe to go out; it was very easy to get cabin fever.”
During these times of anxiety and uncertainty, Jiron would find solace in a maternal mantra.
“The rhetoric I heard from my mother would resonate in my mind,” she said. “Education is the way out. I would say it to my students—over and over. And I would repeat it to myself.”
Before she left for Afghanistan, Jiron had already determined she would become an attorney. When she returned to the States in 2013, she enrolled at Fordham Law School and joined the Stein Scholars Program, a community of public-interest-minded law students. Chosen from diverse backgrounds, the Stein Scholars motivate each other and their other Law School peers to value service and learn from their distinct perspectives—opportunities from which Jiron has never shied.
“Afghanistan gave me a chance to learn about a population that we hear about in the media as being oppressed and disenfranchised: Afghan women,” said Jiron, who is also a competitor on the Moot Court team, a staff member of the Fordham International Law Journal, and an associate of the Fordham chapter of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project. “I wanted to learn firsthand about the actual struggles they face and about how strong they are.”
Jiron knows a woman’s strength. Her mother arrived in Miami in the 1970s from Nicaragua and worked long hours as a licensed practical nurse while also working as a pharmaceutical research assistant in order to send Jiron to private school.
“She would say, ‘Your job is to get A’s and my job is to put you through school,’” Jiron recalled.
Jiron did as her mother asked and excelled in high school. She attended the Honors College at Miami Dade College before transferring to Middlebury College in Vermont. Weeks after she finished with a degree in political science and French, her mother succumbed to cervical cancer, leaving Jiron without an anchor.
“Losing her has made me have to grow up much quicker than I would have liked and is the hardest thing I have ever gone through,” Jiron said. “But it has helped put my education in perspective and reminds me of why I am here.”
The memory of Jiron’s mother also provided ballast during an often-tumultuous time in Afghanistan.
“Lorena earned the lasting trust and respect of Afghan students from her insight into both meeting social and emotional challenges and getting an education,” Jiron’s SOLA colleague Jill Vickers said. “She gave them encouragement as they worked to meet those challenges and refused to accept anything short of complete honesty in their relationship.”
Inspired by her educational work abroad, Jiron decided she would use her law degree to help asylum seekers in the United States, and has found a love of human rights work. Last summer she interned with the immigration protection unit at the New York Legal Assistance Group, where she assisted migrants in securing or continuing lawful status in the United States. She aided West Africans in a similar vein last fall at the immigration and family law unit with NYC Legal Services in the Bronx.
This past semester, Jiron worked at Day One, providing free legal advocacy to youth who are victims of domestic violence and are seeking legal remedies to dating abuse. She plans to spend her summer at the civil rights practice group of the Manhattan firm Newman Ferrara LLP.
As a board member of Fordham’s Latin American Law Students Association, Jiron has also joined with MetroLALSA, a coalition of students from the 13 metropolitan New York-area law schools committed to the advancement of Latino students in the legal profession. Every year, MetroLALSA organizes a conference called Pa’lante! (“moving forward” in colloquial Spanish) to provide students and attorneys with a forum to discuss issues concerning the Latino community while also providing opportunities for networking and career development.
“Fordham has never hosted this conference, and I wanted to change that,” Jiron said. “The new building’s opening seemed like the perfect opportunity to remind the Latino community of our presence and to show other members of the legal profession Fordham’s commitment to its Latino students.” Not only was Jiron’s bid for the conference successful, the organization named Jiron chair of the event.
As Jiron amasses insights and confronts challenges, her perspective—as a student, as a woman, as a burgeoning lawyer—only widens.
“I would say it to my Afghan students, and I believe it applies to women all around the world,” she said. “We’ve been limited in so many ways for so long. We have to keep pushing those limits and step out of our comfort zones; it is the only way to become stronger.”