Lora Morgan Church listed the factors that make her a non-traditional student: She joked that she got her first degree “five hundred years ago,” then received her MPA and an MS in Health Education. She had a career and she and her husband Casey have five children. This month she’ll add a Juris Doctor degree to her resumé and looks forward to the future.
In fifth grade, Church, who is Diné, experienced racist slurs against her Native American identity and decided that she wanted to help other people who had similar experiences and faced obstacles because of it.
“I dreamed bigger,” she said.
She went on to work in school-based health care while she pursued her master’s degree and then worked at the New Mexico Public Education Department as a coordinator for homeless students all over the state. Then as director of the Office of Indian Elder Affairs she coordinated services such as congregate and home-delivered meals, home care, transportation, and other services for tribal seniors.
Last year, Church was selected for the 2020 Rural Summer Legal Corps Fellowship through a partnership that places civil legal aid organizations in rural communities across the United States and its territories. She worked on an inaugural tax pilot project with the Pueblo of Laguna, under the supervision of a tax attorney.
The pandemic restrictions presented challenges.
“We had to factor in time to thoroughly sanitize the meeting room, meet with clients, sanitize, meet another client, and repeat CDC sanitizing protocols again but I made three to four appointments a day,” she recalled.
The experience led Church to explore other legal services clients may have qualified for and reinforced her plans after graduation.
“I really want to reach low-income families and elders in rural and tribal communities, bring services to them in areas where they are comfortable and familiar with. I envision legal services on wheels, a mobile office so I can rotate among these communities,” she explained, adding that she takes a wholistic view of health and well-being for clients and wants to “design services that address the heart of the person and their well-being.”
Church cited Associate Professor of Law and director of the Legal Analysis and Communication Program Steven Homer and Professor Emerita Gloria Valencia-Weber for their mentorship and support.
“Steven Homer was so supportive, gave me a true reflection back on what I was experiencing as a second-career non-traditional student, and helped me express what I had to say in writing. And I think that’s a true educator,” Church remarked.
From Valencia-Weber, she said, “I received so many gems of academic Indian law insights from her. It’s like I was learning how to play basketball and my instructor is an NBA player. I’m a law student being taught by a renowned legal scholar known across the nation. I’m fortunate to call her my mentor and my friend and I am so thankful for what she has given me.”
Throughout her education at UNM, Church’s family remained her priority.
Church recalled striving for her education while raising her children Sháńdíín, Álilee Bah, Nizhóni, Déézbah, and Báhozhóni.
“I worked full time, had little children, and with my husband, we made it work,” Pointing to one side of her head, she continued, “In the evening, this part of my brain was helping them with their homework and with the other side I was reading about health policies.”
Family came first again last fall, when her aunt, a Navajo elder, died from COVID just as Church was winding up the semester’s work.
“My beloved aunt passed away two days before Thanksgiving just at the time I was wrapping up one class and a major project. At that point that’s when school has to be set aside and family takes priority.”
Church helped coordinate Zoom and phone meetings with elderly relatives and family in other states to allow them to virtually coordinate her aunt’s services before returning to her final stretch of academic work before commencement.
“I want to express my gratitude to my husband Casey, my children, to my mother and the elders who blessed me before I entered law school and their words of hope, encouragement and perseverance that have stuck with me through my three years of law school. I’m thankful for everyone who prayed for me and who gave me their listening ear.”
“There were times when I wanted to throw the textbook across the room because there are court cases with U.S. Supreme Court holdings that have a great impact in Indian country.” she explained, “And I am thankful the professors listened to me and allowed me to express my world view.”
Commencement will be bittersweet as she remembers her late father, Curtis Morgan.
“I am so joyous that I am graduating but there is an element of sadness that my late father, who passed just before I entered law school, isn’t here to celebrate with me. My father had a huge impact on my decision to go into study and one day practice elder law… I believe he will be watching over me and beaming with a smile from ear to ear.”
The cemetery where Church’s father is interred is very near the UNM football stadium where commencement exercises will be held.
“When they call my name over the speaker, he’ll hear my name.”