In early March 2020, Lauren Lofton was at a conference in Tennessee, where the mood was dire. The state had just been devastated by 10 tornadoes. By the time Lofton arrived home in California, UC Hastings Law’s campus was moving into pandemic lockdown, where it would remain for more than a year. Lofton, who uses they/them/theirs pronouns, had started in their role as UC Hastings’ Associate Director for Student Life and Inclusion less than two months prior. Not only was Lofton new to UC Hastings, they were new to the world of higher education. “This was a very, very hard year,” Lofton admits. Still, they’re proud of their work to “support students from historically marginalized backgrounds as they thrived or simply survived this year, even as we moved through the deepest grief.”
When Lofton learned they had been awarded the National Association of Law Student Affairs Professionals’ (NALSAP) 2021 Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Award, it was an especially meaningful mark of recognition. It meant the creativity, grit, and resourcefulness they’d brought to their work had helped not just UC Hastings students, but their colleagues across the country — and, by extension, law students across the country — make it through.
NALSAP recognizes one person per year with this honor, which is peer-nominated. “Lauren is a great collaborator and has been instrumental in guiding our members through discussions of race, gender, and other equity issues,” says NALSAP President-Elect Emily Scivoletto.
While higher education has been roiled broadly by the pandemic, student affairs professionals face distinct challenges. They’re responsible for everything that touches the student experience. They work to create community; foster student wellbeing; provide professional programming; and support diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts on campus. But their personalized services often arise from everyday interactions. For instance, Lofton might notice a student in the hallway with a new cast on their leg. Apropos of the chance encounter, they could mention that an injury qualifies as a temporary disability and entitles the student to reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Lofton could then connect the student to the Disability Resource Program for expert guidance and follow-up.
“On Zoom, we don’t have those same intervention moments,” Lofton says. “I might not be able to see the cast. Those students might not come to my virtual office hours.” When school went online, students and teachers still found each other, held mutually accountable by grades and course reviews. But without the siren song of free food, student affairs professionals struggled to draw students to programming. Without hallways, libraries, and quads, there were no serendipitous run-ins.
Lofton and their Office of Student Services colleagues got creative. For instance, Associate Director for Academic Advising and Programming Jonathan Myers coordinated popular wellness sessions on topics such as sound healing and watercolor, with the office sending attendees craft kits ahead of the events. But Lofton says programming not related to mental health was a “hard no” for students. Lofton initially struggled to figure out where their portfolio of work, which is focused on diversity trainings and resources, fit into the broader picture of this particularly difficult year. “Lauren worked tirelessly to support all of the student organizations on campus and to ensure students felt included and part of the community,” says Student Services Director Emily Haan, who notes Lofton’s creativity, care, and thoughtfulness.
While learning to navigate the school, Lofton established themself as a leader within NALSAP. During the Black Lives Matter uprising, they wrote a letter to the listserv advocating for Black-only and other affinity spaces within the organization. The board not only approved that request, it asked Lofton to get involved as a volunteer. “In a year where we were at home, working with NALSAP felt like a way that I could both give back and engage in my own learning,” Lofton says. They had deep experience working in continuing legal education and with train-the-trainer models. In NALSAP, Lofton found a community of practitioners keen to share experiences and learn from one another.
“I’m at so many different marginalized identity intersections: queer, trans, Black, person of color, has a disability,” Lofton says. “In the legal world, people like me almost do not exist.” According to a 2020 ABA report, only 14% of lawyers are people of color, 5% are Black, 3% are openly queer, and .6% have a disability. (The percentage of trans lawyers was not reported.) When questions about campus policing arose in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, Lofton was able to share pertinent elements of UC Hastings’ community safety program. For NALSAP members working in less diverse environments, Lofton’s guidance was a balm.
Meanwhile, at UC Hastings, Lofton designed and provided a mandatory DEI training for all students; hosted focus groups and convened a student advisory committee for the new cross-cultural center and student lounge; served as a member of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Working Group and the Speak Your Truth Campaign committee; supported student leaders, specifically Black, Asian, Jewish, Armenian, and LGBT+ students, as they advocated for their communities; and co-developed and co-taught a new student leadership training in collaboration with Center for Negotiation and Dispute Resolution Deputy Director Mattie Robertson. “Lauren’s depth of knowledge on topics like bias, diversity, identity, and emotional intelligence is unparalleled,” Robertson says. “They are able to talk about these topics in a supportive way that keeps the discussion open for everyone to feel comfortable sharing.”
On NALSAP’s weekly calls, members shared their experience or interest in implementing similar programming at their institutions. Still, students were burned out on Zoom school and Zoom events. How might student affairs professionals inspire them to enter yet another Zoom room? Lofton recommended offering certificates, which would help students demonstrate DEI fluency as they approach the job market. At the NALSAP annual conference, Lofton co-taught two sessions: one on resolving student conflict, another on supporting LGBT+ students, staff, and faculty. (The latter was developed with Disability Resource Center Director Lisa Noshay Petro, who also identifies as LGBT+.) These wide-ranging sessions addressed both broad structural issues and practical skill building, from normalizing pronoun signature lines to developing language about campus lactation stations.
Outside of those calls and conferences, NALSAP members emailed Lofton regularly to request individual phone calls or support related to unfamiliar diversity topics. “Anybody who asked for my time, I said yes to,” Lofton says. “It’s of benefit to the larger community to say yes when we can. It was deeply humbling that people wanted to learn and to feel there was something useful I could offer.” This willingness to collaborate coupled with their capacity for critical analysis makes Lofton an incredible thought partner, says Professor Alina Ball, who has worked with Lofton in Ball’s capacity as faculty co-director of the Center for Racial and Economic Justice.
A big piece of Lofton’s work in the time of COVID focused on creating self-care resources for the students. But with such a variety of work on their plate, how did Lofton resource themself? “Ah, my monk time,” Lofton says playfully. “I do silent meditation retreats for extended periods of time with monks.” While Lofton’s work at UC Hastings is strictly secular, its key principles connect to the teachings of the BIPOC monks and spiritual leaders who have long enriched their life. That community gives Lofton the foundation to do what they do: to bring their full self to work.
By bringing their full self to work, Lofton delivers benefits to all students in one way or another. But for non-binary and trans students, that value is especially poignant. “I’ve had Zoom meetings with students who said I was the first non-binary attorney they’d ever met,” Lofton says. “Some have cried. One even said, ‘I can’t believe you’re a real person.’ I told them: ‘I’m a real person. I won’t always live inside a screen, but I’ll always be a real person.’”