Youth advocate

3L Nneka Ugwu works to reduce racial disparity in school exclusions—and was awarded a prestigious Skadden Fellowship 


In the summer after Nneka Ugwu’s freshman year at Amherst College, George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Ugwu was devastated.

“I saw myself in this boy holding Skittles, and I saw that the law was not responding the way I was,” she says. “I went back to Amherst and took my first Black Studies class.”

The daughter of Nigerian immigrants went on to major in Black Studies, examining connections between youth, education, law, and race in America.

After graduating, Ugwu spent five years teaching teens in Chicago through Teach for America, getting a master’s in special education, and working at an education technology start-up. Despite these various roles, Ugwu continued to reflect on her time in the classroom where she saw cases of students with disabilities—including anxiety, depression, PTSD, and dyslexia—struggling with disciplinary issues.

Ugwu decided that becoming an attorney would be the best way for her to advocate for youth with disabilities.

Everything comes together 

As a Loyola law student, Ugwu joined Stand Up For Each Other (SUFEO), a student-run organization that provides free assistance to families of elementary and high school students facing suspension or expulsion.

“That’s where it clicked for me,” she says. “This was what I’d been working toward all along.”

As SUFEO president in her 2L year, Ugwu saw firsthand what is supported by data she cites from the U.S. Department of Education: Black students in Illinois are nearly four or six times as likely to be expelled or suspended, respectively, as their white peers; students with disabilities are almost twice as likely to be suspended or expelled.

Also in her 2L year, Ugwu began an internship at Equip for Equality (EFE), a nonprofit offering legal services to people with disabilities in Illinois. There, she conducted intake calls for EFE’s Special Education Clinic, and focused on providing legal assistance to students with disabilities who are court-involved, court-diverted, or at-risk of court involvement.

“Doing intakes, I heard the same themes repeated,” she says. “Young people, currently incarcerated, almost always Black, saying ‘I was suspended a lot’ or ‘They kept transferring me to different alternative schools.’ The throughline from school exclusion to incarceration became incredibly clear to me.”

The Skadden Fellowship 

Because of Ugwu’s fierce dedication to serving students with disabilities, she earned a prestigious Skadden Fellowship, which she will begin in September after her May graduation. The New York-based organization provides two-year, paid fellowships to recent law school graduates to pursue a self-designed project in public interest law. Annually, some 200 people apply; 28 are selected.

“My project is about helping schools see opportunities in these students instead”

Ugwu’s project—developed with EFE, which will serve as her required host organization throughout the fellowship—aims to reduce racial disparity in school exclusions.

First, she will ensure existing legal protections are enforced by representing Black students with disabilities throughout Illinois in school disciplinary hearings, Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings, mediations, and due process hearings.

Additionally, Ugwu will deliver know-your-rights trainings to families in communities with severe disparities in disciplinary actions. The individual representation and community education will be done with an eye towards systemic advocacy.

“Trayvon is gone because George Zimmerman saw him as a threat,” Ugwu says. “Black students and students with disabilities who exhibit ‘problem behaviors’ are often seen as threats. My project is about helping schools see opportunities in these students instead.” –Liz Miller (January 2024)


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