First Open Door Fellows Set Bar High For Innovative NCBF Inclusivity Program

In a few short years, the North Carolina Bar Foundation’s Open Door Fellowship will be easily recognized as a vital, thriving component of the Foundation’s programs. The list of North Carolina law students who complete the summer program between their first and second years of law school will continue to grow, and the Open Door Fellowship will make an indelible impact on the lives and careers of those individuals “from historically excluded or disadvantaged backgrounds” which it aspires to serve.

But only two Open Door Fellows can ever lay claim to being the first to complete the program, which Tavaria Smith and Zi Yi Zhou did over the course of last summer. Tavaria is originally from Georgia and attends North Carolina Central University School of Law, while Zi is originally from China and attends the University of North Carolina School of Law.

Their participation in the 10-week program included a paid internship, numerous professional development and networking opportunities, and recognition as guests of honor at the 2023 NCBA Annual Meeting in Wilmington.

You can learn more here about the NCBF Open Door Fellowship program and are encouraged to do so. To learn more about Tavaria and Zi’s candid, uplifting reaction to participating in the Open Door Fellowship program, please continue reading their question-and-answer interview for North Carolina Lawyer digital magazine.

Zi, an Asian American woman with blond hair, wears a black blouse and navy jacket, Clayton, a Black man with a shaved head, wears a grey suit, and Tavaria, a Black woman with black hair, wears a white blouse and dark grey pantsuit.

President Clayton Morgan joins Open Door Fellows Zi Zhou, left, and Tavaria Smith on the stage at the NCBA Annual Meeting.

Tavaria Smith

Please begin by telling us about your overall experience as a charter Open Door Fellow and summer intern with the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission:

I’m very grateful for the experience that I had. It was really cool being able to network, which is a skill that I did not have before law school. But being able to learn how to network and being put in situations where it was less intimidating was great.

At a lot of the events, the lawyers came up to me, versus the students having to go up to the attorney, which can be very intimidating. I remember one of the first events over this summer, I called my mom before and told her, “I’m so nervous, I really don’t want to go in,” because I just never had to do that before law school and that’s one skill I really struggled with. But the Fellowship helped me with that skill.

We were like the stars of the show, and everyone wanted to talk to us. People were asking us what we were interested in, where we’re from, what brings us to law school, and things like that. I was like, “Wow! These attorneys really care about what I am doing. They care about me.”

I came back to law school more prepared for leadership. I’m the North Carolina Bar Association’s Law Student Rep, and I’ve taken on more executive board positions within the school itself. I just feel more confident and comfortable talking to other students. I helped out with their orientation program, and that’s not something I would have felt comfortable doing before. I was more reserved before law school; the fellowship gave me that confidence and that skill to just go up and talk to people. That’s a skill that every lawyer needs – one of those soft skills – and I thought the Fellowship helped with that.

I was with the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission. The fact that it’s like a state agency doing this type of post-conviction, innocence work is mind-boggling. Working on the cases, reading the trial transcripts, gave me this idea that I think I would enjoy being in the courtroom and being one of those attorneys defending people. Or you could think about doing prosecution; I just like being in the courtroom. The staff attorneys were great, and some of them were Central alumni. Overall, I really enjoyed my summer experience.

In addition to your law degree, you have indicated that you’re pursuing a master’s degree in public administration. Do you feel that your summer experience helped inform your interest in going into the public sector after law school?

Yes! I feel like I already knew that public interest work is what I’m passionate about. I worked at a nonprofit before coming to law school, and it really aligns with how I was raised and everything like that. I just really love helping out and giving back to people. It was just that I had to talk to some of the attorneys, because one thing that I was really worried about was the pay for public interest careers. I sat down and talked to one of the attorneys at my summer internship and she was a public defender for Wake County for 10 years. She told me about all of the benefits that come from doing public interest work, so I’m definitely still leaning toward public interest work.

Can you tell us a little more about your background and upbringing?

I was born and raised in Athens, Georgia. I then attended the University of Georgia, which is also in Athens. I stayed in my hometown, but I’m a first-generation college and law student and I’m the oldest child out of four, so I feel like I’ve just really been paving the way and trying to set like a good example for my younger siblings.

But I wanted to branch out from Athens at that point when I was applying to law schools. I had been in Athens for 20 years and in my whole life I pretty much hadn’t really seen anything but Athens, so I just made the decision that I wanted to go out of state for law school. I was stuck between North Carolina and Florida, because I am very big on family and I knew I wanted to be able to drive back if I need to versus flying.

I was applying to all these schools in North Carolina, and that is essentially how I found out about Central. I didn’t even know about Central; I had been applying to UNC, Duke, and these other schools, and didn’t even know about Central until someone I met at UGA who’s from Durham said, “Why don’t you apply to Central?” So I applied and got accepted and came for a visit, and I just fell in love with how it was like this family experience. Everybody was so nice and very welcoming, so I just made the decision that I was going to Central.

Has attending North Carolina Central University School of Law turned out to be everything that you had hoped it would be?

It definitely has! I would say it’s been an adjustment coming from a PWI (Predominantly White Institution) and the resources and the money that the University of Georgia has. I understand that Central just does not have the resources like a big state school like Georgia had, but that’s OK. I feel like at the end of the day the experience, the family experience that I have gotten at Central, is something I wouldn’t have gotten at any other law school. I’ve spoken to people at other schools, and they don’t really talk to their classmates or talk to the upper-level students, and it’s just very closed off. I’ve never had that experience at Central. I could be sitting in the library and someone is coming up and speaking, or last year when I was in the first year, coming up and asking, “How are you doing? Do I need help with anything?” Everybody was just so willing to help. And that’s one thing that I very, very much appreciate about Central.

As you navigate your second year of law school, have you decided what you plan to do next summer?

I did my OCI (on-campus interview) in late August and I’ve accepted a job offer for the summer with North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services. That was one of the organizations that I had learned about through the Fellowship and one of the people who I interviewed with during the process when they were matching up between the employers and the Fellowship candidates. I remember putting them down as my No. 2 and the Commission as my No. 1 because when I talked to the executive director (Elizabeth Hopkins Thomas) and she was telling me about the work that they did, I was just like “Wow!” It was a hard decision to make.

That just seems like such cool work and that’s what I’m very passionate about. I’m very thankful that I got the opportunity to even learn about the organization through the Fellowship, and now I have the ability to intern with them next summer.

When did you decide that you wanted to go to law school?

Law school has just been this idea that I’ve had since I was like 5. I remember a lawyer coming for career day in elementary school, and she was trying to dumb it down for elementary school students to understand what she was, the work that she does, and she kept emphasizing how she gets to help people. Now that I think about it, I believe she was a family law attorney or something like that. But she just really emphasized how she got to help people, and so it was just this kind of thing like kids go through where you have different things that you want to do, and law was something that always stuck with me. I remember doing the career aptitude test in middle school and high school, and I would always get lawyer or a judge or something law-related, so I was like, “OK, maybe this is something I actually want to do.”

But really, as I grew older, I always said that I wanted to do criminal law. That was really motivated by the experiences that people in my family or in my community had, like people I went to school with and just seeing their experiences with the criminal justice system – seeing people you know in school going away for 5-6 years due to gang violence or something like that. Athens is pretty small. It is not a big city like Atlanta; it’s a college town. So it was eye-opening and shocking to hear that people I was going to school with were going away to prison.

I am very big on criminal justice reform, and one of my lifetime goals is to eventually open up a nonprofit focused on the rehabilitation aspect. I would like to practice law for a few years and then start that nonprofit, because I feel like people will do their time, you how the saying goes, “You do the crime, you do the time.” But after they get out, that’s where the problems continue. You do your time, and then you can’t get a job. You can’t vote. You can’t find housing because you have this felony record. I just feel that’s so unfair, and I have witnessed that firsthand through my father not being able to get a job simply because he had a felony record.

Anything that you would like to add about your experience as one of the first Open Door Fellows?

This is going toward students who learn about the Fellowship or are debating if they should apply. I say go for it. Take the time to apply. It’s crazy. I wasn’t going to apply for the Fellowship, I kid you not! It was spring semester of my first year of law school, and the application was due the week that I had midterms.

I think the application was due on Wednesday and I had midterms on Thursday and Friday. I’m like, do I have time to apply? It would take like an hour to apply, but I need to be studying. So I was really having this mental battle in my head, and then something just told me to apply. You never know if you’ll get it, but if you don’t apply, of course you’re not going to get it.

When I got that email that I was a finalist, I called my mom and was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m a finalist. I’m a finalist!” I was just so happy. And then when I found out that I actually got it, I was over the moon. I was very ecstatic because I just knew that this fellowship was going to give me what the title said it was going to do – it was going to open doors for me.

Zi Yi Zhou 

Please begin by telling us about your overall experience as a charter Open Door Fellow and summer intern with the Local Government Federal Credit Union.

I worked with the Local Government Federal Credit Union. I worked under Dayatra (Day) Matthews, and then also Allison Persinger and Bryan Sherrick. They were awesome. Allison and Brian had weekly coaching sessions, and we were able to ask them any questions that were not only work-related, but also law-school related and career-related.

It was really nice to be able to go outside of work and talk about anticipating for future plans and classes to take and any recommendations they had. Most of the time we came in three days a week, so it was good to physically be in an office presence. Commuting (from Chapel Hill to Raleigh) wasn’t great, but they were really flexible about letting me leave an hour early and doing an extra hour at home, because the commute at 5:30 was really terrible!

What was the biggest surprise to you about your experience? 

It was surprising that the class I used the most was my Legal Research in Writing class. It was surprising how much more casual I guess the profession is outside of law school. I guess we’re very used to just “go, go, go” all the time, and it’s a lot more relaxed and less life or death outside. I know people who work at firms and have deadlines to meet, which maybe is a little bit different, but overall, even just talking to my classmates, it is a lot more relaxed than being in law school, which is giving me optimism for the future.

Were you relieved to learn that it wasn’t as stressful as being a 1L?

Yes! Or even a 2L. I just think there is a lot of material, and a part of me is like, “I know I’m not going to be using a lot of this in practice,” but I do think 2L curriculum is more tailored toward practical guidance on how to be a good attorney with your clients and what makes a good client-attorney relationship, especially in my BA class. I’m taking Business Associations with Dean Brinkley, and he definitely does manage to insert little practical tips about what we’re learning right now and how this will like looks in practice, so I appreciate that. I appreciate that a lot. But definitely with 1L, it seemed very dry, and you’re not really sure how all these doctrinal concepts are going to come together, and they don’t really come together in practice, right?

Do you feel like your summer work through the Open Door Fellowship reinforced your desire to become a lawyer?

Yes, definitely! Especially going to the NCBA Annual Meeting – a hundred percent. It was really nice at the Legal Legends of Color ceremony. It was really inspiring, people cojoining their passions with their work and how they impacted the community in different ways in different areas as well. So it doesn’t seem like I just have to go into litigation to make a positive impact that can help in various other ways. It definitely reinforced my motivations on wanting to practice law and it was something to aspire to as well.

As someone on the verge of beginning your legal career, what was it like seeing people being honored for their lifelong contributions?

I think in law school you feel very isolated or contained in a specific mindset where you’re just learning legal standards, legal doctrine, and really try to figure out how to write an exam answer that would satisfy your teacher. It’s almost like cramming as much information as you can in a short amount of time. But then, when you’re seeing these attorneys practice and being celebrated, it takes you out of that space and you realize that the knowledge you have is just an asset in your toolkit that you can use to externally affect others.

I think it showed me a lot of the gaps externally I can fill with this internal knowledge, and I have to build this internal mindset or create a way to think logical thinking, as the attorneys will say, that also will help you learn and just really affect the external community. I think that’s what I struggled with as a 1L. I felt so in my shell in my own world, and I felt so disconnected, but in reality, going to that ceremony made me realize that it’s all a trajectory.

Did you feel like your work experience and attending the bar events was a good combination of exposure for you? 

Yes. I think it’s interesting because we’re always telling students that you need to network throughout the year, but it’s really hard to put your genuine self forward, I think, at times. I think that’s what I struggle with, and what I really appreciate about the summer about working is there were a lot more organic ways to meet people where I don’t feel like, “Oh, I’m only here because I want something from you” or “I’m only saying this because I want to make you feel good so you will give me a job.” It was more like I’m genuinely meeting you here because I want to know you and want to know what you do.

And when you get work experience, you build more of a knowledge base of what practice looks like so you can ask more relatable questions, because when I was just in school, I was like, “What do I ask?” I don’t really know; I don’t know much about anything enough to construct a meaningful question. But I think that once I have work experience, I’ll have a lot more knowledge as to what litigation lawyers do or what in-house lawyers do because I think the nice thing about working in-house is you get a lot of exposure to a lot of practice fields because you’re actively engaging with different types of firms and different types of work. You get a small snippet of what they’re expected to do and what you want them to do for you.

We had a lot of programming. Some were with Minorities in the Profession, and some were with the Young Lawyers Division, so a lot of times you started seeing the same people repeatedly, which was really a positive thing about this experience. I do think everyone at the Bar Association and the Bar Foundation really made an effort to come to every single event, and seeing repeated familiar faces also helps develop that sense of trust and support.

Please share with us a little bit about your background?

I was born in China, and I think a lot of the mainland Chinese immigrants here, they’re from the northeast, like Beijing, Fujian, etc. But I am actually from the southeast. I was actually born in the province next to Vietnam, and I grew up with my grandparents in Hunan, which geographically is about the equivalent of where Georgia is in the U.S. I grew up in a really rural place, but I always like to make the point that when you grow up and everyone has the same living conditions, you never think that I am poor or not privileged or anything.

I had everything I needed. Everyone walks to school. We use the same facilities, but I guess comparatively you would consider it like third-world living. We didn’t have running water and we didn’t have clean water, so we would have to boil it and keep it in a well. But I never felt like I was fighting for my survival. I still went to school. I still had food on the table. I was dressed. I never felt cold or hot, so I guess I really appreciated that part of my upbringing.

And then when I moved here at 8 years old, I moved to Madison County, which is also really rural. I am thankful that it was a small community and I think that because I was the only foreigner they almost had no choice but to accept me.

How did you get from China to Madison County, North Carolina?

My mom came to the United States before I did, while I lived with my grandparents, my mom wanted to establish more security, so she moved here and actually lived in Boston. But my stepdad hated being around so many people and wanted to be away from everyone, so they moved to Madison County, and then she brought me here.

He has a huge plot of land by himself, so he can’t hear or see or know that other people exist, which was funny. But when I moved here it was like the opposite for me – it was not a good reflection of the United States culture, but you know, I guess I am glad for that upbringing because I didn’t really experience direct or aggressive racism. I would say that is definitely because people didn’t know any other foreign cultures, and I didn’t speak English when I came here, so obviously I was treated more like a circus animal as opposed to being treated like I was inferior because I was Chinese. I guess you pick your poison.

And then you came to Chapel Hill for undergrad and law school?

Yes. I think that is why I became really curious with my culture, because when I was growing up it was very much like I was trying to get rid of myself and get rid of anything about my identity that makes me stand out or seem different so that I am not singled out. But when I came here there was a big Asian population, and I was able to learn a lot about being Asian American. I do think it is a different experience when your own personal values are more westernized but your family is not. There’s this disconnect with your emotional needs between the expectations from your family and yourself.

Here I was able to explore a lot of that, and I think that made me more confident in my cultural identity and my background, and even speaking in Chinese. When I was younger I was so embarrassed to speak in Chinese, but now I just say it casually and don’t think anything about it. And my friends are like, “What did you say?” And I say, “Oh, this means goodbye in Chinese.”

Did you always know that you wanted to go to law school?

I did. I wanted to go to law school because my mom, she doesn’t speak English well and she is very small. She’s shorter than me; she’s like 4’10’. So, she’s a little lady who doesn’t speak English well, and I really noticed people, especially in western North Carolina, preying on her and taking advantage of her. If we were out at a restaurant, the waitress or waiter would speak over her and just talk to me, so I just felt like I wanted to be in a position of power to protect her.

I know people have more selfless reasons for wanting to go to law school, and maybe conceptually it is a selfless reason, but I do think it is a selfish reason for me because I want to be able to stand up for people I care about and I want to be able to protect them. I don’t want to feel like I don’t know what to say or I don’t know what to do or I don’t know who to go to when something bad is happening. That’s why I wanted to go to law school.

How do you think participating in the Open Door Fellowship program has helped you the most?

I think it helped me build confidence. I think about this a lot. You can assume there’s not a lot of people in my family that have gone to college here or gone to law school. When people say a lot of hot terms like “network,” “meet people,” “ask questions,” and you don’t really know what any of that means.

I think it’s helped me develop a lot of confidence in terms of what I’m looking for in a relationship when I’m in these networking events and what networking means and looks like for me. It helped me develop my own personal goals and identity in this space as a student, and hopefully when I’m graduating, as a young professional. It just helped me feel reassured that there’s good people who care and who are willing to help and there’s familiar faces I can go to when I need help.

Russell Rawlings is director of external affairs and communications for the North Carolina Bar Association.