Finding the right key
Gerald Polanco says his mother was technically without a home—living in a shelter for homeless pregnant women—when he was born. The two soon moved to a fifth-floor walk-up apartment about a block south of the Bronx Zoo. They lived there until Polanco was about eight, when the family moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to be closer to relatives.
Growing up “with not a lot” has always driven Polanco, from pursuing success so he could lighten the burden on his mother—who emigrated from the Dominican Republican and often worked two jobs in the United States—to realizing his mission would be to help those who have as little as his family started with.
“I’m leaning toward public defense work,” says the third-year student. “But whether I do that or work in poverty law, civil legal services, or child law, the idea is about fighting zealously for your clients and helping to empower them.”
Polanco’s mother began with few possessions but had great expectations for her son. “I grew up in this spirit of determination, this idea of having to go further than where we’ve been,” he recalls. “Part of that had to do with our socioeconomic status. Part also came from the immigrant mentality of wanting your children to excel. My mother really believed education was the key to success. My story of success has been largely driven by my mother.”
That doesn’t mean Polanco didn’t have big dreams himself. By the age of five, he knew he was going to be a lawyer. He first wanted to be president, after his mother told him the president’s job was to make people’s lives better. Later he realized being a lawyer would also enable him to make a difference. “The idea of being given the skills and access to really help people try to change their lives—whether in an individual or systemic way—led me to the law,” he says.
First, however, Polanco wanted to test himself. That’s how he landed at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where he earned
his bachelor’s in political science. “I knew I was going to have to take out law school loans, so I wanted to be as debt-free as possible for my undergrad degree,” he says. “UNM provided that. But more than that, New Mexico was my 40 days in the desert, if you will. I needed to go somewhere where I knew no one.”
Polanco did things there he’d never have done if he had stayed in the Midwest. He went logging for decaying and dead trees to heat a friend’s family farm. He helped crew a hot-air balloon. He visited a Native American reservation. He fell in love with a local church, which led him to El Salvador to work on behalf of children. “By going to school in New Mexico, I was able to orient myself in a way, to come into myself more,” says Polanco.
Grounded at Loyola
Heading to Loyola also felt right. “It has a social justice core, and that attracted me,” says Polanco. “Loyola was also a place where people
wanted me to excel, from the people in career services to the professors. I’ve never felt my professors really cared about me until now.”
When he’s not burrowed into textbooks, Polanco’s often still reading. His love is fantasy and science fiction—think Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett and Gaiman’s American Gods, Anansi Boys, and Neverwhere. You’ll also find him playing the violin, which he learned in grade school, for his parish choir. Or maybe you won’t nd him at all because he’s scratching his itch for travel. Polanco jetted to Rome and Strasbourg, France, for Loyola’s Study Law Abroad program. He also landed in Cambodia—with a side trip to Thailand—for Loyola’s Global Law Seminar.
Though Polanco says it’s too early to be sure of his ultimate career path, he knows it’ll involve advocating on behalf of people who need help the most. “Part of what attracts me to public defense work is that you’re not just providing a legal service, you’re really there as an advocate for clients,” he says. “And I’d be representing people I empathize with and whom I know—people I grew up with, my childhood friends, the homeless man I say ‘hi’ to every day.
“When I was growing up in Grand Rapids, more than once I saw police raiding my neighbors’ homes. In many ways my life is about how I was privileged enough that I didn’t become a statistic.”