Door Opener

New program helps cover tuition and service fees for in-state Native American students

Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Kristin Theis-Alvarez is helping the law school recruit and support more Native Americans
MAKING CHANGE: Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Kristin Theis-Alvarez is helping the law school recruit and support more Native Americans. Photo by Darius Riley
When Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Kristin Theis-Alvarez heard about the UC system’s plan to cover tuition and student service fees for California residents enrolled in federally recognized Native American, American Indian, and Alaska Native tribes, she was elated: Creating a pathway to Berkeley Law for Native American students has been a passion-driven project of hers for years.

But she also knew the school needed to do more, because the Professional Degree Supplemental Tuition (PDST) makes up the bulk of law students’ costs: $21,334 per semester for in-state residents, on top of the $5,721 tuition per semester. All UC professional school students pay PDST, which is set by the UC Regents.

“We agreed that it’s important to make this education accessible, but also immediately recognized that PDST would remain a significant impediment,” Theis-Alvarez says. “We felt the only way to honor the intention was for Berkeley Law to also offset PDST.”

She gained approval from Dean Erwin Chemerinsky to cover those fees for qualifying students, using existing financial aid dollars. New students and continuing students who meet the criteria began receiving the gift aid this semester.

“Native Americans are very underrepresented in law schools and the legal profession. It is very important for Berkeley Law to provide opportunities for Native American students,” Chemerinsky says. “This also is part of our important, larger effort to create a top program in Indian Law.”

Professor and Indian Law scholar Seth Davis says the new program signals deepening engagement with Native students. Students revived the Native American Law Student Association (NALSA) chapter in 2018, hosted the National NALSA Moot Court Competition in 2020, are increasingly involved with the school’s Native American Legal Assistance Project, and support tribal people through the Environmental Law Clinic.

Davis calls Theis-Alvarez’s efforts to build on the UC commitment “transformative for our ability to recruit even more Native students — to show them that they are not only welcome, but will be supported materially as well as socially by our community.”

Berkeley NALSA member Asunción Hampson-Medina ’23 foresees the new aid enabling more Native students to attend law school, and to afford to work in their communities after graduating.

“So many barriers to political and economic power have been put up against Indigenous people for centuries,” Hampson-Medina says. “This is just one way to make up for that injustice and support Indigenous students who want to succeed in the legal field.”

Theis-Alvarez hopes Berkeley Law can raise more money and offer the same deal to enrolled members of federally recognized tribes who aren’t California residents. She’s also exploring partnerships with outside groups to ensure access for in-state members of tribes not recognized by the federal government.

“To make Berkeley Law a destination law school for Native American students, we have to take the next steps,” she says. — Gwyneth K. Shaw