Growing up on the Navajo Nation in southeastern Utah’s red-sand landscape of Monument Valley, Melinda Dee knew she wanted to someday work in a career that would allow her to help people get their lives back on track.
But her route to becoming a student at the S.J. Quinney College of Law took a circuitous journey: She first became a social worker and spent years providing therapy to clients struggling with substance abuse issues. She worked at a women’s shelter and at the Urban Indian Center, providing counseling to those in need through an outpatient program. Her time as a therapist connected her closely to the court system, a place where she watched people with little to no support system often fail to keep themselves out from behind bars.
While her role as a counselor allowed her to encourage clients to make different choices on a personal level, she longed to change the outcome of sentences handed down by a judge. What if she could advocate for a defendant to receive much-needed treatment instead of jail time?
“I saw a lot of clients come through the system and they had a lot of problems. I lot of times I saw that they didn’t have the support system they needed to succeed. They didn’t have anyone to really to turn to. I wanted to help more people and help them through the (legal) process better. Most people who are court-ordered do not end up in treatment. I wanted to help people at the beginning of the legal process and so I decided to go law school,” said Dee.
When Dee started at the S.J. Quinney College of Law, she’d already obtained a bachelor’s degree from BYU in social work in 2006, followed by a master’s degree in social work in 2009. Internships at Child Protective Services and the Children’s Justice Center helped steer her in the direction of working in the law on social justice issues.
At the College of Law, Dee quickly rose to be a leader among her peers. She volunteered her time with the Pro Bono Initiative, or PBI. The program has a three-part mission: to provide skill building legal opportunities under the direct supervision of attorneys; to develop placements where alumni can volunteer, network and serve as mentors to law students; and to demonstrate the professional responsibility of those in the legal profession to provide pro bono legal services to the underserved in the community who otherwise would not have access to the justice system.
Dee served as student director of PBI’s American Indian Legal Clinic, bringing invaluable assets to the clinic because of her personal commitment to the clinic and community at large, said JoLynn Spruance, director of PBI at the College of Law.
“She is able to dissect complex legal issues, which I attribute to her coursework here at the College of Law and her continued work as a social worker. She has keen insight when working with clients,” said Spruance. “Melinda is committed to social justice issues and will be an emerging leader in our community.”
Spruance noted that Dee is a quiet force of nature, volunteering not just for PBI but countless hours at other organizations she believes in that are connected to social justice issues.
“She isn’t a leader that needs constant attention or has to be out in front….she actually is doing the work in the background. She is aware of the obstacles that have stood in her way, but Melinda will either find a way around or straight through them,” said Spruance. “Melinda is set to become a role model in her community.”
Professor Bob Flores agreed with Spruance and noted that Dee’s contributions not only impacted the College of Law, but the entire University of Utah campus. Dee participated in the campus-wide Association for American Indian Graduate Students, a group designed to improve the status of students of Native American descent in higher education by systematically identifying and addressing their needs and concerns.
Dee also served as president of the law school’s Minority Law Caucus student organization, which promotes diversity in the legal profession in general and at the College of Law. The Minority Law Caucus is involved in student recruitment, development of employment opportunities, community service projects and social activities. In addition, it sponsors a variety of speakers and programs each year, awards scholarships, and hosts an annual auction to support its scholarship fund.
And she served as a student representative on college of law Dean’s Diversity Council, where she made important contributions and insights about the experiences of native students and advising the law school administration on how to recruit and retain Native American students, Flores said.
He said Dee standouts out from all law students he has worked with over three decades at the law school because of her commitment to community service.
“She has excellent insights about community needs, particularly for legal assistance, and she pairs those insights with an outstanding work ethic. She has been successful in her many endeavors prior to and during law school, and will achieve much after graduation, because she persists. She faces and overcomes obstacles through the power of persistence,” said Flores.
For Dee, life after graduation will likely bring her full circle to helping clients in the courtroom —making the move from social worker to advocate and public defender. She’s completed clerkships in federal court, just passed the Bar exam, and was offered a job with the Salt Lake Legal Defender Association, where she recently interned.
She graduated a semester early but will join her classmates to walk across the stage at Kingsbury Hall for the law school’s commencement in May.
The May 11 ceremony at 10 a.m. is open to the public and will be streamed live on the law school’s YouTube page.