Saturday, June 03, 2017

FAMU Law student overcomes obstacles to obtain degree

When the 13th Florida A&M University (FAMU) College of Law Hooding Ceremony was held at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts on May 20, 2017, Benjamin Irving may have resembled any graduating law student who had faced challenges.

After all, Irving –  who commuted daily to downtown Orlando from Marion County during his three years of studying law – uses a wheelchair to move about life.  But that is not the half of what makes him one extraordinary law graduate.

The 37-year-old Philadelphia native was charged with and convicted of three felonies at the age of eighteen.  In addition, at 24, he was shot and paralyzed and has suffered from physical issues because of his paralysis ever since.

“Throughout the mental, physical and financial burdens of being a law student, coupled with the obstacles my background carries, somehow, I made it to the end,” Irving said.  “I’ll be the first to say that I never expected this outcome, or to be at this place and time.”

Irving joined nearly 130 candidates for the juris doctor degree when they were individually hooded before a host of family, friends and FAMU College of Law alumni.  The event was the highlight of a law school journey that has been wrought with complications for Irving.

“I have been suffering from inflammation in my arms and muscle spasms since 2015,” Irving said.  “There have been days when I could not make it to law school because of these problems – and lots of days where I had to will myself to and through classes at school.”

Irving credits FAMU Law Professors Beverly Perry and Richard Hurt with going the extra mile during his law school experience.  Perry, he says, would offer words of encouragement when it was needed most, and assisted in directing him to external help when his health issues were problematic. “She believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself,” Irving said.

At times, Irving would sit in his car for extended moments when severe muscle spasms made it nearly impossible to transfer to his wheelchair – and he would sometimes fall in his attempts.  He says Hurt would see his struggles first-hand and lend assistance.

“Most people would assume that my life is fine except that I’m confined to a wheelchair,” expressed Irving.  “Getting up every day and making it to and through school is literally a struggle for me.”

Overcoming is nothing new for Irving, who just prior to his convictions and paralysis attended Menchville and Denbigh High Schools in Newport News, Virginia.  He dropped out in the 10th grade, and obtained his GED in Hampton City Jail.

He eventually relocated to Florida and went on to obtain an associate’s degree from the College of Central Florida, and bachelor’s degree from the University of Central Florida – all while commuting from Ocala due to limited housing options because of his past.  His next obstacle would be law school.

“Law has intrigued me since I was around eighteen,” Irving said.  “I was on probation around that time and would sit and watch circuit court hearings when I would arrive early to visit with my probation officer.”

Irving entered law school in August 2014, choosing FAMU College of Law because of its proximity to Orlando’s federal and circuit courts.  As a FAMU law student, he participated in the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund, the FAMU law student chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Jesse J. McCrary Chapter of the Black Law Students Association.

He achieved the dean’s list during his second year of law school, and logged more than 756 hours of legal service to the public while completing the Guardian Ad Litem, mediation and homelessness legal clinics.  He hopes to practice in electronic discovery, mediation or disability law.

“Because I am paralyzed, disability law is meaningful to me and I have personally experienced the struggles that people with disabilities experience first-hand,” Irving said.  “Some lawyers may avoid disability cases that involve ADA issues because there may not be much money involved, but I care personally, and to me it’s about more than the money.”

Despite the struggles, Irving has come to embrace his present, and has joined more than 1,200 FAMU College of Law alumni as a graduate of one of the most diverse law schools in the nation.

“I cried the other day because who would have thought after all that I’ve seen and been through, I’m about to obtain my juris doctor degree,” Irving said. “I cried and hated the sight of my wheelchair at first, and now I realize if not for it, I would have been dead, or in jail.”

Irving acknowledges his bar clearance and career options may be difficult hurdles to clear, but he approaches the next chapter of his life just as he has the others – with determination.

“My advice to others: we cannot turn back the hands of time to correct the mistakes that we made in life,” he said.  The only thing we can do is move forward.  Bottom line, don’t give up.”

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