Last month, Swapanthi Mandalika (a 3L at Alabama Law) was awarded the Women’s White Collar Defense Association’s (WWCDA) Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Outstanding Law Student Award in Washington, D.C. This national award is given to a woman in the final year of her legal education who best exemplifies Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s commitment to excellence, perseverance, resilience, extraordinary work ethic, and tireless efforts to ensure justice for all. While Mandalika is at the top of her class, has won 13 best paper awards in her courses, and has publicly been recognized as “the best student I’ve ever had,” by Professor Heather Elliott—who clerked for Justice Ginsburg—Mandalika’s academic journey was not easy.
“Long before my time in law school, I was a girl failing my way out of high school,” said Mandalika. “Having taken the GED equivalent, my college experience wasn’t going much better.”
Suffering from “intense, impenitent anxiety” that robbed her of the ability to complete coursework, Mandalika fell into such deep despair that she almost gave up on the journey that led her to law school. She points out that a simple lack of compassion from her teachers and peers led, in part, to this despair. In time, the absence of positive support drove her to find ways to create better experiences for those who came after her.
“As a last-ditched effort to pull myself out of my near intractable despondency, I started a women’s support group at a low-income school in my neighborhood,” said Mandalika. “Across those meetings, I learned several invaluable lessons, chief among them that it is hard to feel useless when you are being helpful.”
In leading the support group, Mandalika experienced a “personal rebirth” which remains the focus of her professional energies. “From here, whatever I achieve, I hope to return in kind to those who similarly suffer from the extreme diffidence that plagued my youth.”
At the beginning of her second year in Law School, Mandalika carried out this commitment by joining a pilot program directed to help first-year law students navigate their rigorous, pressure-filled environments by providing a variety of academic resources. In the first three semesters she served in this program, she spent approximately 180 hours mentoring and supporting other students at Alabama Law. She will continue to serve in this capacity through graduation at the end of this spring semester.
Our group, the Academic Success Fellows, met with students 2-3 times a week to ensure they were keeping pace in their classes. As part of my duties, I endeavored to not only answer my classmate’s questions, but I also sought to ensure students were abiding by the study plans we jointly created. Three times now, I have received a phone call from a fellow student thanking me for helping them achieve their first ‘A’ in law school. Tearfully, one student informed me that in lieu of calling her mother or her husband, she wanted me to be the first to know. That call from her remains my proudest accomplishment in law school. My rank as first in my class remains dwarfed in personal significance by her quiet reassurance that I had been a small agent in justice’s slow advance. –Swapanthi Mandalika
This spring, Mandalika and her husband will be welcoming their first child, a baby boy, into their family. Upon graduation, she has committed to clerkships in both the Northern District of Alabama and the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. She has also been offered a full-time position at the firm Latham & Watkins for future employment in their Washington, D.C. office upon completion of her clerkships. Ultimately, Mandalika plans to pursue a career in academia where she can continue to invest in student mentorship, scholarship, and advocacy.
“I would hope to foster a cohort of legal professionals unburdened by the limitations of past or present generations, and only bound by the furthest grasps of their own imaginings,” said Mandalika.