Frost Brown Todd (FBT) Zenobia Harris Bivens Diversity Scholarship
The FBT Zenobia Harris Bivens Diversity Scholarship supports deserving students in their education and exploration of the law. Established in 2010 as the FBT Diversity Scholarship Fund, the scholarship was renamed in 2022 to honor our late colleague Zenobia, who was a tireless advocate for the many people and causes she championed during her lifetime. To date, our firm has awarded approximately $70,000 in scholarships to more than 30 students for demonstrating academic excellence, service to the profession, service to the community, and a commitment to diversity.
Meet Our 2023 Scholars
A record number of students from a record number of schools applied this year through our scholarship program, now in its 12th year. These seven future lawyers, all standout students, won us over with their passion and leadership in the community.
Tolulope Ajifowobaje was born in Nigeria, migrated to the United States in 2019, and is currently in her third year of law school at the University of Akron School of Law. After earning a master’s in law at the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, she spent more than a decade in the legal field, starting first as a legal officer at the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission before establishing her own practice, Ajifowobaje & Co, where she assisted clients with matters related to constitutional law, contracts, and land ownership. To this day, she maintains her license to practice law in Nigeria.
Tolulope was raised in a single-parent household and felt determined from a young age to fight injustice and improve conditions and opportunities for other women. She explained, “Growing up, I have always wanted to be an inspiration to young girls not only in my community but all over the world. I have been involved with helping young adults, especially girls, navigate and figure out their path in life.”
Tolulope’s life has been one of both triumphs and hardships. Moving to the United States was a dream she and her husband shared and one they, along with their two children, fulfilled in 2019. Tragedy soon followed. She lost her husband to cancer a mere two weeks after the family’s arrival in the U.S. While grieving this loss and tending to the needs of her two school-age children, she enrolled in the J.D. program at the University of Akron, determined to achieve the goals she had set for herself.
Though the pressures of managing both coursework and her responsibilities as a parent made her consider putting her legal career on hold, Tolulope has pressed forward: She earned a position in the top 5% of her law school class and is on track to graduate in May.
Upon completing her J.D. and passing the bar, Tolulope hopes to defend the rights and interests of the indigent in society and continue helping young women “to dream big and pursue their dreams.
NinaSimone Edwards is a second-year law student at the Georgetown University Law Center. In her application, Simone described moving to Tennessee as a teenager and discovering that she was the only Black girl at her high school. As a student, she experienced racism in both subtle and palpable ways, from being told she was only there because the school needed diversity to having a cross burned in an attempt to force her family out of town. Rather than be deterred, these experiences were a motivating factor for her personally and academically, setting the stage for her decision to eventually pursue a career in law.
During her undergraduate studies at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga (UTC), where she earned a bachelor’s in political science, Simone was an active member of several organizations and student groups. She served as communications director of the Black Student Alliance and chaired the Social Issues, Equity, and Diversity Committee. She founded and edited a newspaper to promote the stories and voices of the school’s diverse and multicultural students.
For these and other contributions, Simone was the recipient of honors including the Chancellor’s Gold Award of Excellence, the Inspiring Women in Lifelong Leadership Award, and the Carolyn M. Thompson Spirit of UTC Award. To cap it off, she became the first UTC student in 50 years to earn a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship, which took her to Guatemala.
Simone later taught literacy through the AmeriCorps program and led sessions on social justice at Camp Equity. She had a valuable perspective and example to offer as someone who had frequently found herself in spaces where she was the only woman of color: “While I was teaching my students, I began to realize the value of being a teacher of color,” Simone explained. “My students saw themselves in me, and more importantly, they saw their futures. I was often asked what I was going to do after I stopped teaching, and when I said law school, they were astonished. They began to connect the dots between me, someone who they saw as a regular black woman, and Kamala Harris, someone who seemed so far away from them that she was surreal. I realized that I was paving the way for students like them.”
Fast forward to the Georgetown University Law Center, where in addition to her coursework, Simone is a public interest fellow with the Women of Color Collective and communications director for the Black Law Students Association. She also clerked with the Migrant Legal Action Program last summer, works as a translator with the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala, and volunteers at homeless shelters in and around Washington, D.C.
“Whether it is through my research or through my active involvement as a mentor,” Simone wrote, “I intend to bring joy and laughter, as well as creativity, while working to enhance the diversity and equity of the legal field.”
Luwam Gabreselassie, a first-year law student at Notre Dame Law School, was born in Eritrea in Eastern Africa and fled her family’s home to escape war and political oppression, eventually landing at a refugee camp in Ethiopia. Then, at nine years old, she and her family received asylum status and moved to the United States.
The transition had its challenges. Luwam explained, “I was thrown into an American school system and never got to attend an ELL class…. I learned English by watching countless hours of PBS KIDS, repeating and imitating how they spoke. As the oldest of six children, with parents who had limited education in Eritrea and did not speak English, I acted as a translator, helped read mail, and figured out immigration paperwork.”
Luwam found a path forward through education, becoming the first in her family to graduate college. At the University of Washington, she earned two bachelor’s degrees—one in law, societies and justice, the other in environmental science. During her undergraduate studies, she interned at Community Passageways, a nonprofit focusing on restorative justice and youth advocacy. She also contributed to scholarly research examining the health disparities in the African immigrant community and the ways in which the stigma surrounding HIV can be a barrier to testing and treatment.
The impetus for her next move stemmed from those early experiences. “My background of fleeing my homeland and seeking asylum is what drew me to the legal field,” Luwam wrote. “Human rights law has made a lasting impact in my life and changed the trajectory of my future.” By the time she began law school at Notre Dame last year, she’d already worked as a paralegal at the Washington Innocence Project and the Benefits Law Center, the latter of which provides legal services and other resources to people living with mental and physical disabilities.
Now in her second semester, Luwam is relishing the exposure to different facets of the law. Though she has yet to home in on a specialty, she is determined to use her education to promote equitable opportunities for the refugee community and other vulnerable populations. “My extraordinary circumstances shaped who I am,” she offered, “but I can’t wait to see how a legal degree shapes my future.”
Muhammad Ali Ilahi is a first-year law student at Penn State University. Born in Pakistan, Muhammad earned his bachelor’s in finance from the Lahore University of Management Sciences and later relocated to the United States, where he earned a master’s in public administration from Cornell University.
“Diversity has always strongly resonated with me, given my background as a religious minority,” Muhammad wrote. “I see strength in differences and value in heterogeneity.”
In graduate school at Cornell, Muhammad was president of the Cornell Pakistan Society, a graduate student coordinator for the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives, and a delegate at the World Government Summit in Dubai. During that same period, he interned with the refugee support organization Humanity Crew and taught language and professional development classes for refugees of different age groups and nationalities—work that was aided by his fluency in languages including Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi, and English.
Muhammad is not only a first-generation immigrant; he is also the first member of his family to enroll in law school, with plans to complete his law degree at Penn State in May 2025. He described his career plans following graduation: “I aspire to pursue immigration law to help vulnerable people and communities who might be in need of legal support. I am passionate about human rights and social justice, and wish to work towards a world that is more tolerant, empathetic and diverse.”
A first-year law student at Penn State Law, Amerika Jayme grew up in El Paso, Texas, near the Mexican border. Her family migrated to the U.S. to escape escalating violence in Juarez, settling in different cities across the Southwest and working odd jobs so that their children could someday attend college. She wrote, “I live in a world quite different from that of my mom, aunts, grandmothers, and great grandmothers. Unlike them, I was not forced into marriage and motherhood at a young age. I was encouraged to go to school, choose my own life path, and choose my partners.”
Amerika did not let her family’s sacrifices go to waste. After earning a bachelor’s in political science from St. Mary’s University, she worked as an admissions counselor at the University of Texas in El Paso (UTEP), where she was responsible for outreach to high schools with large Hispanic populations, including undocumented students. In this role, she exposed countless students to the benefits of higher education, helping them apply for college and obtain grants and tuition waivers. Amerika eventually enrolled in the UTEP’s Master of Public Administration program and eventually wrote her thesis on issues of educational equity impacting low-income students. She completed her master’s degree with a 4.0 GPA and that same year earned a spot in the 2025 class at Penn State Law.
For Amerika, both her upbringing and experiences working with first-generation college students have shaped her ambitions. “The rates at which Hispanic women attend college, receive graduate degrees, and attend law school in the U.S. fuel my mission to expand accessibility,” Amerika explained. “My passion for public service stems from a desire to better my community…. I look forward to bringing this into the legal field and continuing to work to make higher education more accessible.”
Valeri Simmons finished out her first year of law school ranked in the top 15% of her class at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. This feat is all the more impressive given the financial, physical, and personal challenges she had to overcome as someone born into multi-generational poverty and a survivor of an abusive home. Additionally, Valeri described feeling a sense of otherness growing up with a disability that made her work even harder to “disprove the stereotype that I will work or achieve less.”
Highly motivated, Valeri started bussing tables at her grandfather’s restaurant at age 9 and later worked a variety of odd jobs in pursuit of financial independence. At age 16, she was accepted into a residential high school for gifted and talented students where she distinguished herself as a top-notch student and varsity athlete. After earning a full ride to Indiana University, she experienced a debilitating health condition that eluded diagnosis and prevented her from devoting enough time to her studies, eventually resulting in her dismissal from the university.
Fortunately, Valeri’s dreams of becoming a legal advocate did not end there. While working full-time, she earned her bachelor’s in security and risk analysis through Penn State University’s distance learning program, finishing out her final six semesters with “straight A’s (and one obnoxious B).”
In law school, Valeri is a standout student for reasons that go beyond her academic performance. She updated the Bench Guide for the Indiana State Bar Association’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Committee, founded a National Lawyers Guild Chapter (which was voted “Best New Student Organization”), and continues to mentor pre-law students through the school’s Pathway to the Law program.
Over the summer, she clerked with the Indiana Attorney General Office’s Consumer Protection Division, Data Privacy & Identity Theft Unit. This experience, along with her undergraduate background in risk analysis, have contributed to her goal to eventually practice in emerging areas of law such as privacy and data security, technology and intellectual property.
Valeri has been a model of resilience, completing her undergraduate degree despite periods of illness and homelessness. Reflecting on these experiences, she wrote, “I proved to myself that no matter what, I can keep going. I will achieve what I want to achieve. Most importantly, I will lift other ‘others’ up with me, because we will do far better working together than struggling alone.”
Shayna Yogman is a first-year law student at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and a recipient of the school’s Dean’s Scholarship. In her application, Shayna described her grandfather’s escape from Auschwitz, his efforts to liberate others imprisoned, and how his example set her life on a course to end discrimination and fight for a safer, equitable world.
That foundation and drive has informed her career path. At the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), for instance, Shayna worked as a research assistant on the expert witness team for Sines v. Kessler, a federal lawsuit in which the plaintiffs won a significant victory against the organizers of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA. She held several positions at the Anti-Defamation League, where she led trainings on hate crimes and antisemitism and oversaw the organization’s public statements and outreach efforts in response to discriminatory and antisemitic acts. During this period, Shayna was also tapped to curate and orchestrate the largest Holocaust remembrance program in the Western United States, which was officiated by the first LGBTQ+ rabbi in the program’s 35-year history.
Shayna’s academic achievements are extensive and equally impressive. She holds a bachelor’s in English from Rutgers University and earned two master’s degrees prior to enrolling in law school: an MA in sociology from the University of Pittsburgh and an MSc in religious studies from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. She’s contributed to an impressive body of scholarship on white supremacy and ideological extremism, including articles published in international outlets. Shayna also directed a documentary film memorializing the voices of Holocaust survivors that has been included in museum exhibits and catalogues in the U.S. and abroad.
Asked about her aims beyond law school, Shayna wrote that, while interested in exploring different legal areas, “I remain committed to fighting white supremacy. I intend to use my law degree, in part or in full, to continue my 16 years of professional experience in this capacity.”
The Scholarship’s Namesake
Zenobia Harris Bivens (1981-2022)
Zenobia Harris Bivens was an accomplished lawyer who championed diversity and inclusion in the legal profession. In the early parts of her career, Zenobia clerked for the Honorable Carl E. Stewart of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit and the Honorable Justice Dale Wainwright (ret.) of the Texas Supreme Court. As a more seasoned attorney, Zenobia served as counsel in cases involving NASA, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, among many others. Zenobia’s cases were featured in Forbes, The New York Times, and The Houston Chronicle. Zenobia also successfully argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Zenobia served as a mentor and friend to several attorneys and business professionals. She worked tirelessly to advance the careers of the professionals who she was entrusted to lead. Zenobia was also relentless in her pursuit for justice, and this was evident in her pro bono advocacy work as she was particularly passionate about helping those who had been denied justice by the legal system.
The FBT Zenobia Harris Bivens Diversity Scholarship program seeks to continue Zenobia’s commitment to excellence by giving future attorneys the opportunity to pursue legal careers and make positive impacts on their clients, colleagues and communities. Zenobia’s commitment to excellence will live on through the scholarship recipients who apply their unique commitments to excellence in their respective legal careers.
Submission Criteria & Process
The FBT Zenobia Harris Bivens Diversity Scholarship program is meant to promote, in a tangible way, the principles set forth in our firm’s Diversity & Inclusion Vision Statement. Building a pipeline of diverse attorneys is vital to the future of our firm and our profession, and this scholarship program is one component of our broader pipeline work.
Scholarships are open to all underrepresented students, including but not limited to African American, Hispanic or Latinx, Asian, Native American, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, multi-racial, and LGBTQ+ students. All female students are also eligible, regardless of race or ethnicity. Any other students who come from backgrounds that would add to the cause of diversity, regardless of race or gender, are eligible to apply.
To qualify for this scholarship, a candidate must be a law student at an ABA-accredited law school or an undergraduate student who intends to pursue law school after graduation.
Scholarships will be awarded to applicants who best meet the following criteria:
Scholarship applications are typically sent to schools within our footprint in the Spring Semester. Any students who wish to apply should contact Diversity Scholarship Committee Member Justin Fowles.
July 11, 2023
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