Students juggle school, work, family during COVID-19 crisis

Jad Vonderheid ’21 with his 2-year-old daughter and 10-week-old son.

The COVID-19 crisis and stay-at-home order in Maryland have upended lives, changing the way everyone works and lives. At the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law no one has felt the impact more than the law students living an unprecedented end to the last few weeks of the 2020 spring semester. Switching to remote learning and exams, disappointed by canceled events, and facing an uncertain legal market, students have experienced challenges they never imagined when they enrolled in law school.

Life was already bustling for evening student Jad Vonderheid JD ’21. With a full-time job, law school at night, and a growing family, the insurance executive is accustomed to having a lot of balls in the air at once. Add the COVID-19 crisis to the mix and everything got a lot more complicated.

“It is absolute chaos at home,” said Vonderheid during the last week of classes, “and then trying to find time for school has been an extraordinary challenge.”

Set up for telework in the family’s dining room, Vonderheid does his day-job while helping his sleep-deprived wife care for their newborn son and 2-year-old daughter—taking calls from clients with the baby in his arms, cramming in a few minutes to read with his toddler. At night, Vonderheid prepares for and attends online classes, often falling asleep around midnight over his laptop.

Even at his most exhausted, though, Vonderheid recognizes a silver lining during the COVID-19 crisis—getting to spend more time with his kids. “We are just so close now,” the dad reflects on his relationship with his toddler, “and our connection has probably been strengthened by the fact that I am able to be with her much more.”

Finding a bright side has also been advantageous for Alexis Gbemudu JD ’20 (bottom right), who hunkered down with family in Delaware to complete her last semester remotely. Part of the team that took first place in the Battle of the Experts competition at Drexel in the fall, Gbemudu was disappointed when her final National Trial Team competition scheduled for early March was canceled. She takes comfort, however, in remembering that, “schools across the country and world are going through the same thing.”

Gbemudu, who is grateful to have a clerkship at the Maryland Court of Special Appeals secured as word travels of law firm cutbacks, said she also appreciates that Maryland Carey Law engaged students in the decision-making process regarding graduation. She and her classmates were able to voice their preference to reschedule the event rather than replacing it with an online ceremony. In response, Dean Donald Tobin has committed to holding an in-person celebration when it is safe to do so. “I am happy we postponed,” said the former president of the Black Law Students Association. “This occasion cannot be passed without celebrating.”

Evening student Edward Healy JD’21 also faced disappointment when the March 10 Sports Law Symposium he worked hard to organize was canceled. Speaking from his Baltimore County family home where he is quarantining with his mother and three siblings, Healy recalled the excitement leading up to the event and the let-down he felt over its cancelation. With his full-time job at the Maryland Stadium Authority, past experience in the sports industry, and alumni connections, Healy and other members of the Entertainment, Arts, and Sports Law Society at Maryland Carey Law had put together an impressive roster of speakers for the symposium, including Brandon Etheridge, general counsel for the Ravens, and Mike Buchwald ’08, corporate counsel for the NFL. After several years of low activity in the student organization, Healy has viewed his presidency as an opportunity to give new life to the organization and expand its network.

"We lost momentum for a growing group,” said Healy, who also developed a middle school outreach program and is planning a negotiation competition. “Everything was building up to the symposium.”

Meanwhile, Healy copes by keeping his sense of humor, describing the standing desk he constructed in his basement from boxes housing Christmas decorations, and how he blends smoothies in the bathroom to avoid disturbing his mother, a teacher, during her live online classes.

For Ola Saliu MSL’20, the COVID-19 emergency didn’t change the way he took classes since the Master of Science in Law in cybersecurity law is an online-only program.  However, said Saliu, the stay-at-home order presented him with challenges “managing family, workload and school.” The Nigeria native’s job with a prominent credit union has only gotten busier with the economic crash caused by the virus. And with managing the remote education of his two sons, ages 7 and 14, Saliu’s days are more hectic than ever.

Fortunately, the cybersecurity law coursework is directly applicable to Saliu’s work as a senior systems business analyst, helping him take on projects that require a deep understanding of how compliance functions in the banking industry. “I am able to connect the dots,” he said, “and manage systems and processes around the law.”

Plus, laughed Saliu, at least there is no shortage of workspace in the house he and his wife built in 2014 because they designed most rooms to be wired for remote work. “I am blessed,” said Saliu, “we have offices everywhere.”

Rachel Muñoz JD ’20 is another aspiring lawyer managing parenting and law school. A mom of four children ages 7 and under, the day student suddenly added full-time care giving and homeschooling for her little ones when the stay-at-home order was enacted. Additionally, Muñoz’s husband, a pharmacist and essential worker, has seen increased work hours as he converts to curbside pick-up and delivery service at the independent pharmacy in Annapolis he runs.

Muñoz handles it all through creativity and a positive outlook. When classes transitioned online, professors were required by the school to record their lectures to accommodate students’ upside-down schedules. That flexibility has helped Muñoz keep up what she called a “balancing act.” It doesn’t hurt that Prof. David Gray resembles a favorite kindergarten teacher at her children’s elementary school, so Muñoz’s 5-year-old likes to sit in mom’s lap for Gray’s classes.

Speaking shortly after taking an online exam for which her husband was able to fenagle a day off from the pharmacy, Muñoz said, “I am so grateful for this opportunity to study law. In a time of crisis, it hits home that I am really blessed to have these professors teaching their specialties.”

The spring 2020 semester will go down in the history of the law school for the unique challenges faced by students and, indeed, the whole Maryland Carey Law community. However, the difficulties are not all we will remember, said Dean Donald Tobin, who has worked tirelessly to steer the school through the crisis.

“I have never been prouder to be dean of Maryland Carey Law,” said Tobin. “Our students, faculty, staff and alumni were amazing, and really stepped up to provide the best learning environment possible under very difficult circumstances. Our students stayed committed to their studies, and our alumni community and the UMB Foundation joined together to provide financial assistance to our students in financial distress because of the epidemic. We are drawing strength from each other, building on our deep sense of community, and finding ways to stay connected even if we are physically distant.”

Share this article