Valerie Garcia (JD, ‘25) at the University of Cincinnati College of Law

Breaking the Mold

How Valerie Garcia is Pushing Limits in Law and Bodybuilding

As Valerie Garcia (JD, ‘25) heads toward her final year of law school, she won’t just be preparing to take the bar exam. This spring, she’ll be preparing for her first foray into the competitive world of female bodybuilding.

“I'm a firm believer that we need to take care, not just of our brains, but of our bodies,” said Valerie, who goes to the gym five to six times per week and follows a strict diet in order to build muscle and burn fat. Her passion for bodybuilding sprang from the months stuck at home during the 2020 lockdown when, unable to go to the gym, she turned to social media as an outlet. That’s when she stumbled on the world of female bodybuilding, and her relationship to the gym changed.

“I know that a lot of women want to go to the gym to be skinny, but for me I was fascinated by female bodybuilders’ bodies and how strong they looked,” she said. “From then on, I wanted to see what I would look like if I was the best version of myself.”

During that time, something else began to shift, too. Valerie began to imagine a life beyond California. Born in San Diego, and raised most of her life in Tijuana, Mexico, she was accustomed to living in richly diverse areas. But while working as a paralegal in her hometown and applying for law schools, living in the Midwest started to become a consideration in part for economic reasons. That’s when she found The University of Cincinnati College of Law.

“I realized I could have a better quality of life in the Midwest. And I liked that Cincy Law had a lot of clinics pertaining to criminal justice, as well as scholarship opportunities,” she said.  “When I saw that the bar passing rate was over 80%, I felt confident about my decision.”

Months later, she was thrilled to find out she got accepted and was awarded a scholarship. But in light of the divisive political climate and Ohio’s lack of racial diversity, her father had his own reservations.

“My dad was worried about me coming to a conservative state with a very small Hispanic population. He saw it as a risk,” she said. “But I didn’t see it that way…if anything the pandemic taught me that life is short.”

Valerie Garcia

The drive from San Diego to Cincinnati took three days—and a lot of patience from her father. At first, she said he insisted on driving the whole way. But once fatigue took over around the Rocky Mountains, Valerie assumed her role in the driver’s seat.

“He kept waking up to make sure I wasn’t running us off the road,” she laughed. Over the hours spent together at the wheel, the pair had time to talk and reminisce before reaching their final destination—her new apartment in Cincinnati. 

“When I said goodbye to him at the airport it was a mix of emotions,” she said. “He was happy that I was here. He wasn't happy that I wouldn’t be home anymore. But he was proud of me.”

Crying a little on the way back to her apartment, Valerie took a deep breath—both sad and happy that the day had finally come to begin her law school journey in an entirely new place. Along with its snowy winters and famous chili on spaghetti, Cincinnati has its perks, including an overall better quality of life, she said.

“If I’m stressed about anything, it’s school, not my bills.”

My quality of life has gone way up here Gas is cheaper. Rent is cheaper. Groceries are not as expensive as back home. I can afford my gym membership and go to the movies with friends.

Valerie was also surprised to find that Cincy Law has a more diverse student body than she expected, in part due to the Master of Laws (LLM) program.

“As a JD, you also have classmates through the LLM program who are attorneys from other countries, and that adds to the diversity,” she said. “So that’s helpful.”

Yet, as a first-generation law student, coming from out of state with English as her second language, Valerie still had a lot of adjusting to do. Her first year, she jumped on opportunities to grow in her writing skills and accepted an externship with the First District Court of Appeals. Keeping up with the course load and staying on top of her grades took commitment and she often took to the gym to de-stress.

“It was a lot. My first semester was very challenging, I was starting from zero,” she said. “Going to the gym definitely helped my mental health.”

"I want to use my brains and everything I’m learning as a law student in order to help people. If I’m not helping people, then what am I doing with this knowledge?”

- Valerie Garcia, JD ‘25

Valerie Garcia

Recently, she completed an externship with UC’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Access, where she conducted research and wrote several memos pertaining to the school’s employment policies. Getting to have this experience as a 2L, she noted, is what helped solidify the type of law she hopes to work in: employment law.

“It was challenging, but in a good way,” she said. “It connected the dots between what I did as a paralegal [in San Diego] and what I’m learning today. I can see how it mattered.”

As a paralegal before law school, Valerie worked on class action lawsuits. One case in particular, filed by a group of mostly Hispanic truck drivers, has stayed with her.

“These truck drivers had to purchase their own routes, they had to purchase their own uniform, they made a significant investment of their time and effort. But they were contractors so they weren’t protected as employees...They didn't know better,” she said. “It really raised a flag for me in terms of legal protections for minorities…My people are hardworking, but that does not mean they should be taken advantage of.”

Valerie was raised with a positive example of how employers treat their employees. Her father, who went from factory manager to Vice President while raising her in Tijuana, made it part of his mission to advocate for his employees, especially those with disabilities in the workplace. He insisted on all signage being in braille and installed ramps to ensure accessibility, something she said is not as common in Mexico. Valerie recalled seeing this dedication firsthand, as early as preschool when she would hang out at his work after school, content with a coloring book and a few pesos for the vending machine in her pocket.

“My dad was very hard working. As he was progressing in his career, he was also raising me as a single dad,” she said. “He has always looked out for employees, not because they are employees, but because there are people. He never let how far he has come allow him to treat people any differently.”

Valerie expressed hopes that she can one day be to her clients who her dad was to his employees, especially for other Hispanics.

“Race and economic inequality play a role in the outcome of your life here in the US,” she said. “I want to use my brains and everything I’m learning as a law student to help people. If I’m not helping people, then what am I doing with this knowledge?”

Valerie Garcia

In the US, Hispanics/Latinx comprise a small fraction of JD degree candidates, accounting for only 9.4% of incoming JD matriculants in 2023, according to The Law School Admission Council (LSAC). This underrepresentation is even more pronounced when looking at the number of Latina lawyers in the country, a mere 1.3%. Valerie is well-aware of these statistics. While not ignoring the stark reality, she said she doesn't want her opportunities to be tied to her identity as a minority in the field either.

“When we [Hispanic law students] get interviewed with law firms, the interview will pivot to, ‘Have you considered immigration law?’” she explained. “I know that I can be useful there but… I think that my potential goes further than my ethnicity and language skills. I do want to help my community, but I don't think the solution is just to box us in.”

Navigating both representation as a Hispanic in the law field, and what it means to be a woman in bodybuilding are challenges that Valerie has come to know well. But she has learned to ignore what others might expect from her and stay committed to being the best version of herself.

Valerie Garcia

“There's a lot that goes into bodybuilding. There's how much you have to diet, how much you have to sleep, all the vitamins,” she said. “And one day I would like to work my way up at a law firm. They both take commitment.”

This spring, Valerie will begin an internship with Cincy Law’s Legal Access Clinic–and also begin a new diet and exercise plan to continue perfecting her physique’s shape and symmetry in time for next year’s competition. Her hope is to eventually find work in Cincinnati, but wherever she goes next, she believes it’s important to never forget where she came from.

“It doesn't matter how far I go or where I end up. I'm still a girl from Tijuana TJ that is thriving and vibing in Cincinnati,” she said. “I would encourage anyone to take the risk and explore the possibilities outside of where they live, because there is so much else out there.”

Want to learn more about our students and their journey to (and through) law school? Read more stories on the "Meet Our Students" page. See yourself at Cincinnati Law!   

Author: Bachmeyer Press

Photographer: Asa Featherstone IV

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