Paths converge at UCLA Extension graduation
Highlighting importance of certificate programs, more will graduate than ever before
Since grade school, all Kasey LaRocca wanted to be was a lawyer.
When Elizabeth White enrolled at UCLA, she thought a French literature degree would lead to a world-traipsing life.
These dreams never quite materialized, but LaRocca's and White's paths are now intertwined — even if their journeys are separated by more than 30 years. This Friday, June 29, at UCLA's Royce Hall, both will thank one of the country's most respected paralegal programs for showing them their true calling as they celebrate individual milestones at UCLA Extension's certificate graduation ceremony.
The former French literature student is now Judge Elizabeth White, a veteran of the Los Angeles County Superior Court whose most recent high-profile case was the Nicollette Sheridan/"Desperate Housewives" wrongful termination lawsuit. At Friday's ceremony, White will receive Extension's Professional Achievement Award and deliver remarks about the value of professional certificates and continuing education.
The aspiring attorney LaRocca, who once conducted mock trials as a fifth grader, is now happily employed as a well-paid paralegal at a prestigious intellectual property law firm in Los Angeles. She will formally accept her certificate on Friday.
Their stories will be among dozens told during a graduation ceremony that has taken on added importance as professional certificates become the fastest-growing college credential, according to a recent study. Today, UCLA Extension offers certificates in more than 100 specialized areas, from architecture and finance to design and health care. More than 2,400 students will receive certificates from Extension in 2012, an increase of nearly 700 over last year.
"The quest for knowledge and career development is growing stronger in today's global economy, and university-based institutions like UCLA Extension are providing the tools for success through structured certificate programs," said Cathy Sandeen, dean of UCLA Extension and Continuing Education, whose daughter, Cara Compesi, recently earned her teaching credential online through Extension and will be in the Royce Hall audience.
The Extension paralegal program, which began in 1972 and last year expanded its offerings to Extension's downtown Los Angeles campus, will confer 344 certificates this year.
In the mid-1970s, a law career was far from White's goals. She was midway through an undergraduate degree in literature when her grandmother posed the pertinent question.
"My grandmother asked, 'What does one do with a French literature degree?' She knew about Extension and she heard about the paralegal program," White recalled. "She said I should walk on down to check it out. I always listened to my grandmother."
The UCLA Extension paralegal program was in the news at that time, as it had just earned approval from the American Bar Association and was working closely with the UCLA School of Law on course development. These distinctions have become attractive to the thousands of students who see a paralegal certificate as a stepping stone to becoming a lawyer or entering other law-related professions.
"Many who want to become lawyers will earn their paralegal certificate because it is a great way to prepare for the LSAT (Law School Admission Test)," said Roger L. Torneden, director of Extension's business, management and legal programs.
White finished her final two years of undergraduate studies in literature while simultaneously earning her paralegal certificate, which immediately landed her a job at Loeb & Loeb LLP, where she worked for a few years before attending law school.
"My grandmother had it right," she said. "Extension gave me the tools for a lifelong career in law."
A lifelong career in law was what LaRocca envisioned as a child, in part because of her surroundings. Her mother has been a paralegal for more than 30 years, her grandfather spent his life in law enforcement and a cousin was a district attorney. After completing her undergraduate degree, she got a job as a legal assistant at a law firm in her home state of Texas and began studying for the LSAT. Though she was accepted to a law school in Los Angeles, she realized after one semester that the lawyer's life was not in her immediate future.
"What I thought it was going to be didn't necessarily turn out that way," she said. "But I still wanted to remain in the law profession in some capacity."
LaRocca and her parents brainstormed some alternatives and decided on the paralegal path. A search soon put UCLA Extension's program on the short list, followed by a speedy registration.
"We've told her that, law school aside, we would have moved her to LA just to attend your fine program," LaRocca's mother, Kim, wrote in a recent letter to Sandeen. "We also feel she received a more valuable credential than she could have received from any paralegal school in Texas (we're native Texans, so that's not an easy thing to admit!) ... The results go far beyond the increase in salary (which will now allow her to meet the financial necessities to stay in LA and further her legal career), but much more importantly include a restoration of self-confidence in my daughter that was lost after the law school experience."
LaRocca said becoming a lawyer is still a possibility, but for now she enjoys assisting lawyers.
White, in addition to speaking about the value of Extension certificates, will encourage those at the ceremony to give back to the institution. She herself is an Extension paralegal course instructor and has been honored previously as an Extension Distinguished Instructor. In addition, she regularly conducts education programs through the superior court for newly licensed attorneys.
Sandeen, in her remarks at Friday's ceremony (which will be livestreamed on the Internet), will emphasize Extension's growing global importance — among this year's certificate recipients are hundreds of international students from Russia, Switzerland, Thailand, Cambodia, Argentina, Ireland, Japan and other countries — and will highlight UCLA's new "Optimist" marketing campaign.
Hear the stories of those earning certificates through UCLA Extension:
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