Ana Pirnia, now working as a high-powered international arbitration lawyer in Washington, D.C., had this to say when reflecting upon the law school application process and her path to success:
“One of the things that kept me from submitting my application was self-doubt and fear of failure. Once I worked to overcome that, I applied in a headspace where I was very open to and at peace with the possibility of not getting in.”
Born in Mexico, Ana moved to Texas with her family when she was 5 years old. Ana had a twin sister, a younger sister, and a brother. Moving to and starting a life in the United States was a big transition for her family, to say the least. First, there was the language barrier. Her father spoke limited English, and her mother spoke barely any at all. Second, there were cultural differences, combined with racist attitudes towards Latino immigrants that thrived in the small Texas town her family first settled in. Ana contended with this from a very young age, often feeling like she was occupying two different worlds at once.
During this period of Ana’s life, her family moved around a bit. In the first small rural town they lived in, they were one of two Latino families in the neighborhood. The racism in this town made them decide to move out, and they eventually settled in the town of Round Rock, right outside of Austin. Culture and class divides persisted here, too. There was a clear delineation between the middle and upper-class neighborhoods, and Ana’s family remained one of the only non-white families in the area. Access to jobs was difficult for her mother because of her limited English, but Ana’s dad worked at his father’s aerospace company. Because of their limited income, her parents often had to be creative to afford things like extracurricular activities for Ana.
Going to school for the first time was where all of these dynamics collided for Ana. She felt very strongly as a child that it was vital to do very well in school because this was her opportunity to have a better life, a pressure that did not weigh as hard on some of her non-immigrant classmates. School was also Ana’s introduction to spoken and written English. As a bilingual child, Ana struggled with English reading and writing, which in turn made her feel uncomfortable in learning environments for much of her school career. However, Ana was resourceful. She had many tricks to make her experience more seamless, such as asking “what?” a lot to learn words better through repetition.
Another way Ana adapted to her surroundings was by looking at her peers. Her childhood best friend exemplified to Ana what it meant to be a good, successful student. By observing Becky in school and spending time at her house, Ana had a blueprint of sorts for how to move about a classroom environment. But beyond her friend’s example, Ana began to be an academic in her own right. As she began to receive very good grades, Ana got the sense that she could succeed, that she had her own internal drive to always strive to achieve more.
Spirituality and religion were also important during Ana’s childhood. Her family spent a lot of time “church hunting,” jumping around between religious communities until they found the right fit. Her parents wanted to feel comfortable in a church that spoke Spanish, so the church they ended up attending was a very long drive from their home, a drive Ana remembers making every Sunday. Socio-economic class differences also punctuated this community, as well, and Ana’s family would have to navigate this. A lot of the families going to the church were Mexican immigrants, but some were long-standing Mexican Americans, so there was a divide within the church.
Then, when Ana was a little older, her father discovered the Baha’i faith. He attended firesides by himself for a while until he decided to bring the family into the religion. At first, Ana was confused, since she grew up as a child really devoted to Christianity and felt that any other religions were inferior, and Baha’i was more expansive. But as she attended potlucks, firesides, and made friends her own age, Ana began to feel a spiritual connection like she never had before. She would declare herself a Baha’i at fifteen, and this spirituality would stay with Ana into adulthood.
A year after this, Ana’s father decided to switch jobs and relocate the family to Connecticut, where Ana would spend her teenage years. Ana would continue to be very devoted to her studies, and work very diligently to get into a good college. Her parents had always stressed the importance of going as far with her studies as she could, and Ana wanted to follow this, but it was not always easy to have that much pressure on her. As an adult, Ana reflected that she wished she had more chances in high school to just be a kid, and focus more on nurturing friendships instead of getting into a good college.
Ana didn’t have many people helping her through the process, since her parents did not understand the US system, so she relied on her peers in the same way she did when she was younger. However, Ana’s hard work would pay off, as she got into Tufts University in Boston. Ana had a pretty strong idea that she wanted to study something international-relations/government-related, because of her faith. She cared very deeply about international human rights and was very excited to start learning about them in-depth.
College would provide Ana with some additional hurdles she would have to overcome before she could reach her academic potential. Although there were elements of freedom in college, Ana was not quite prepared for the difficulty. Ana described her first semester at Tufts as “brutal;” she had to drop two classes because she couldn’t keep up with the workload. What really worried her was one of the classes she struggled with was International Relations 101–the intro class for her major. This experience really shook her because she had been a straight-A student in high school. When she returned home for break, Ana had to sit down and mentally convince herself to continue her education.
Ana ultimately decided to return to school, and reaffirm her commitment to her education. With the help of a mentor from the Latinx House on campus, Ana was able to regain her confidence and academic prowess. Ana learned that what she went through in her first semester is very common in a lot of freshmen, and especially in first-generation students who may not have grown up with an idea of what college would really be like. She also realized that the study habits she had in high school needed to be updated to a college setting, where in-depth analysis and long-form writing was expected. Once she had these tools, Ana improved her grades and was even able to make Dean’s list.
As Ana began to plan for her post-grad life, she considered her options. She wanted to go into international health, go into conflict zones, and be part of crafting a solution, but she wasn’t sure exactly how to make that happen. Many of the careers in diplomacy and international relations that Ana was considering required U.S. citizenship, something that she did not have. Ana’s father had obtained U.S. citizenship, but the rest of her family only had green cards, and the process to become a citizen was complicated and expensive. This left Ana in an interesting place, caught between two countries. She could work as a Mexican diplomat, but she had never lived there, so it did not seem right to her to represent that country.
Ultimately, Ana decided to accept a position as a Spanish translator at the Israeli headquarters of a non-profit international organization that focused on social and economic development, traveling back to the U.S. every 6 months in order to retain her green card status. After returning to the U.S. Ana eventually applied for and was accepted to a fellowship position with the Tahirih Justice Center, an NGO that served immigrant survivors of gender-based violence. Ana had the language skills and cultural familiarity to be very successful in this role, and her boss suggested that she go to work at a legal firm. This next step would eventually launch Ana’s career in arbitration law.
Ana accepted a position as a paralegal at Arnold & Porter law firm. Through this role working with lawyers and attending to clients’ needs, Ana was really able to get some perspective on the day-to-day of working in law. Because of her language ability, Ana joined a team of lawyers focused on representing sovereign clients in disputes with private investors, a branch of law called international arbitration. International arbitration as a very niche field lacked diversity, and Ana saw that although there were good and bad things about arbitration, it was a rapidly developing field, with a lot of room for growth and improvement, which intrigued her.
It was her time at Arnold & Porter that made Ana decide to go to law school. However, the mental hurdles Ana had to overcome were significant while she was applying. Because of her past experiences within school systems, Ana had to overcome her fear of failure and rejection. When she applied to Colombia and was waitlisted, she was actually incredibly excited because she had no expectations of getting in at all. When she applied a second time, she got in and began her education.
Ana was 32 when she started, a little older than the traditional age, but this meant she had a very good idea of what she wanted. Ana was also simultaneously juggling her newly born daughter at this time, so she had to be very decisive. She already knew that she was interested in international arbitration, so she shopped around the disciplines just to be sure. She worked very hard her first and second years of law school to be able to study abroad in France for her final third year, where she obtained an additional master’s degree in economic law at Sciences Po. She did her summer internship and associate position at Arnold & Porter and was given a job offer for after graduation.
After passing the bar, Ana moved her family to D.C. and started working as a first-year associate. After working her way up the ranks at the firm to today, Ana knows that she does not want to work in big law forever, and is setting her sights on the future. She hopes to live abroad again, and possibly apply her talents to public international law in other settings. The competitive nature of big law is not for everyone, Ana says, but she feels fortunate to work at a firm where attorneys like her with a passion for social justice work have an opportunity to give back to the community. . This has allowed Ana to maintain an active pro bono practice in U.S. civil rights and immigration law alongside her usual arbitration work.
Ana’s remarkable story from Mexico, Texas, Connecticut, New to the East Coast to Columbia Law to Arnold & Porter really highlights the importance of understanding the quality of excellence and striving for it daily, even when the system is not designed for you, can impact your life. Not only did Ana learn English as a second language, face racist attitudes towards Mexican immigrants, and learn to navigate the school system with little support, she also is a pioneer in a field of law lacking representation and diversity, paving the way for women who come after her. Ana exemplifies the importance of having a positive inner voice to listen to above what you are being told.