Angelina Hollingsworth: Justice is Blind

Angelina Hollingsworth: Justice is Blind

Central Penn College alumna Angelina Hollingworth took the bar exam in July 2022 and learned with jubilation that she passed on her first attempt that November.

That in and of itself is a noteworthy accomplishment, worthy of the cake and family members who came to surprise her. But it is even more remarkable when you consider that this newly minted attorney is visually impaired.

Born with albinism, Angelina’s vision suffered significantly from birth on, a common symptom with this genetic condition, spawned by a lack of melanin production, affecting hair color, skin color, eye color and vision. Her mom was told she would never be able to drive, work, or live by herself.

Still, her vision for herself was strong, and is something her doubters are now seeing clearly.

A graduate of Central Penn College and New England School of Law | Boston, Hollingsworth now lives with her mom Paula and son in Arkansas, working as the Executive Director of a legal nonprofit known as Community Legal Access. In partnership with Legal Aid, she helps those who can’t afford an attorney.

The nonprofit’s motto is “Getting affordable access to justice for all.”

Angelina’s life’s journey often forced her to fight for justice for herself. She is the youngest of four, the first one in her family to graduate high school and college.

Her Mom was Amish, before marrying her father, who was Hutterite. After marrying Angelina’s father, Paula also joined the Hutterite community, but quickly realized they treated women in unconscionable ways. To make sure her children had a better life, Paula left with her three small children and Angelina on the way in the dead of night with only $20. She traveled across the county and settled in Pennsylvania. Her husband joined her after Paula was taken in by the Amish community in Lancaster.

However, after Angelina was born, and it was realized she was blind, her father, tragically, decided to leave his family and never have a relationship with Angelina.

Angelina’s older siblings dropped out of high school and started careers. But not her.

“I apparently was a stubborn kid,” she quipped. She would not be limited by her culture or her disability.

When enrolled in Garden Spot High School in New Holland, her guidance counselor told her college was not the right fit for her, and sent her to Goodwill for a job.

Her teachers also did not accommodate her disability. Instead, they said she wasn’t required to take tests, read the assignments or complete projects —but that didn’t help her learn, she lamented.

“I knew, if I wanted to learn something, I had to learn for myself,” Hollingsworth said.

Angelina listened to books on tape through Perkins School for the Blind.

She credits the Blind Association with helping her advance through high school.

She got married out of high school and became a housewife and mother, but her marriage turned abusive. Her mom, Paula, came and moved her out.

Her mom was her biggest –and only—educational supporter, Angelina confides, with her mom often telling her, “You can do whatever you want to do.”

Angelina found Central Penn College and saw they have online classes. She knew she wouldn’t need accommodations because of the online classes. Only a few classes were on site, she realized.

She said the Blind Association gave her a train pass to get to CPC if needed. She applied to Central Penn and was accepted.

She started pursuing a Legal Studies degree. She didn’t tell anyone except her mom that she was going to college and wanted to go to law school.

Paula would drive her to the local train station, and care for Angelina’s son, who is now 8.

She decided to pursue her bachelor’s, tripling up on credits after securing special permission.

She said her professors at Central Penn College never treated her differently because she was blind.

Robert M. Donley, J.D. taught her Civil Litigation course. Here she presented her first closing argument. Her jury gave her side the win—-the first time in 11 years that her side had won, the professor told her!

John DeLeo was her advisor, and is someone she values greatly, along with Professor Donley.

Donley said, “Indeed I do remember Angelina. She was an amazing student and overcame so many obstacles to succeed.”

Another female law professor gave her so much confidence in legal writing and research.

“At CPC, I never had the feeling it was too hard for me. I tell everyone to go to Central Penn. It was the best experience of my life,” Hollingsworth said.

At Central Penn, she became a delegate for the Student Government Association, was in the honors program and helped create the Mental Health Awareness Day on campus. She also served as the PR officer for Gamma Beta Phi and took part in a research exhibit and won “Fan Favorite.”

“I had such a great time there and got to do things I never thought I could do!” she said.

Between 2017 and 2019, she completed four years of work in two years and three months, graduating cum laude.

While completing the legal studies program, Hollingsworth earned valuable, real-world experience by interning at the Federal Public Defenders Office in the Capital Habeas Unit in Harrisburg. In that position, she worked on a death row case and a case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

She also volunteered as a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) in Lancaster, representing the interests of children in foster care.

“Angelina was a dedicated and driven student, both in the classroom and outside of it,” said Professor John DeLeo.

Hollingsworth graduated with a bachelor’s degree in legal studies in June of 2019. Soon thereafter, she moved from her home in New Holland, Pa., to the Boston area to pursue her law degree.

She was awarded a full, merit-based scholarship to New England Law | Boston. She was awarded the Sandra Day O’Connor Scholarship, based upon her grades, school involvement and LSAT scores.

The scholarship–– valued at more than $147,000––covered the full cost of tuition during her three years of law school at the Massachusetts institution. She also got scholarship offers from Widener Law, Drexel and a few other schools.

“I just want to thank my professors for all that they taught me,” said Hollingsworth, who enrolled in the college during the 2017 spring term.

“I do owe Central Penn College a lot of credit for preparing me for law school.”

As an intern in the federal Public Defender Office, she did not tell them she was blind. After a few months, her employers finally asked if she was blind. They said she was the best intern they ever had.

“You have opened the door for us,” her employers said. They never thought that they could possibly accommodate a blind person, and indeed, had never worked with a blind person before, but she showed them all her intellect and talent, which transcended her vision.

The team had a farewell lunch for her, wrote her letters of recommendation, and offered her a post, but she decided to go to law school.

She found the environment at New England School of Law to be far less welcoming. Billed as pioneers for women because they were the first to admit women, she found that the level of diversity was not as the school advertised.

Her mom sold their house in Pennsylvania to move to Boston with her and help with Angelina’s son. Together they packed up the U-haul and drove to Boston in August 2019.

She said New England Law | Boston Student Service informed her that they would never have accepted her if they knew she was blind. Still, she decided to make it work. She navigated law school without classroom accommodations.

The school would not let her bring a guide dog or paint the steps so she could detect depth.. She plunged into a depression as her grades fell.

She told her mom, “I don’t think I can do this.”

Her mom urged her to “give it one more semester.”

Then COVID-19 happened, in March of 2020. While this pandemic was a source of great tragedy for so many, it was actually a blessing for her in many ways.

The school went online, and she made dean’s list that next semester.

Because the interviews, and court went online during the pandemic, she didn’t disclose her blindness on her externship interview, as she knew she could make her own accommodation since the work was remote. She was offered a position as a 3.03 Attorney at Veterans Legal Services (VLS) a nonprofit law firm. Before she ended her externship VLS offered her a paid position, writing in their report to her law school about her work “Angelina is among the best externs they have ever had”.

In her last semester of law school, nearly three years later, the law school went back to in-person instruction. Again, she asked for in classroom accommodations, but was denied by Student Services. She filed a complaint with the U.S. Dept of Education. She said even the building was not ADA-compliant.

She realized she needed a lawyer of her own. An attorney in Boston reached out and took her case.

So close to finishing, she feared she would be kicked out because the school refused to count her online presence.

Because the school said that the ABA wouldn’t allow them to count her remote attendance as actual “attendance,” she again had to advocate for herself. She confirmed with the ABA that the school had received a semester Variance allowing them to allow any student to be remote for that semester.

Ultimately, her remote accommodation was approved, after what Angelina termed “much heartache and betrayal.”

She made dean’s list and graduated.

Her struggles did not stop there. Her bar preparation courses (Barbri) were not accessible to her screen reader, but one of her devoted professors found another bar prep and gave her access to the course for free.

She passed the bar the first time she took the grueling exam.

She was sworn in to the Massachusetts bar on Nov. 21, 2022 and the Arkansas bar March 29, 2023.

Her goals are still lofty. Throughout law school, she saw the need for a treatment facility as an alternative to incarceration, leading her to do her doctoral paper on this topic. She wants to start a nonprofit, treatment facility for family using functional medicine, agriculture, and transformative justice to support families facing entering the justice system.

Arkansas may help her open her nonprofit.

Still, she would love to come back to Pennsylvania and open here.

“Harrisburg and CPC hold a special place for me because that’s those are the places where I felt the most supported and received the most opportunities”

She now hopes to find support in the Blind Attorney Association and NOAH, the National Organization of People with Albinism. She discovered that only seven members are attorneys with albinism. Only four are women.

With her cane and guide dog, she knows she is a rarity. Fortunately, Central Penn embraced her differences and found innovative ways for her to succeed—whatever that journey looked like, and even if she couldn’t look at all.

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