With a 12-year military career that included a tour in Iraq in 2008, Jarmeika Taylor is looking soon to embark upon another mission.
As she prepares to graduate from the SIU School of Law this week, Taylor wants her career to be an initiative that is close to her heart: helping veterans gain the legal help they need.
“I want to do veterans’ law,” said Taylor, who remains a sergeant in the Illinois Army National Guard. “I also want to help low-income and middle class families who cannot pay for the whole process themselves but who need assistance.”
In the process of moving to northeastern Indiana where she attended college, Taylor is among 15 law school graduates set to earn degrees at the end of the semester. She is opting to participate in commencement ceremonies in May after she moves to the Fort Wayne, Indiana, area and prepares for the Indiana Bar Exam in February.
Busy while in law school
Taylor, 33, who is from St. Louis, came specifically to the law school for its Veterans’ Legal Assistance Program (VLAP). Students have an opportunity to be involved in helping veterans and surviving spouses in appealing denials of Veterans Affairs disability benefit claims.
Taylor served in the military from 2003 to 2015 including nearly a year in Iraq where, among her duties, was tracking convoy movements. Taylor remains a sergeant with the Illinois Army National Guard. Her desire for law school rekindled after seeing her “battle buddies” struggle upon their return home.
“If they don’t have somebody to turn to, like an attorney, who can help them, those problems never get solved,” Taylor said. Unresolved health benefit issues can also result in mental, physical, financial and legal problems.
In addition to working with the VLAP program the last 1-and-a-half years, Taylor worked on the first case involving a new law school initiative – the Veterans Legal and Medical Partnership (VetLAMP) – with the SIU School of Medicine. The unique collaboration will streamline and bolster disability claims as third- and fourth-year medical school students, with faculty, review medical records to glean evidence supporting service-related disability claim appeals.
A quick connection with veterans
Martin Parsons, a clinical assistant professor and VLAP director, said Taylor’s military background makes it easier to connect with veterans. Students are responsible for managing cases including follow-up with veterans, where needed. The work includes intake interviews, research, writing and drafting arguments.
“She also has a very big heart,” Parsons said. “She’s very service minded, which is separate from her being a veteran. She wants to help people.”
In October, Taylor learned that the first VLAP appeal case she worked on seeking denied benefits for a deceased veterans’ spouse received VA approval. The woman sent a ‘Thank You’ card, which touched Taylor.
“It was a great feeling that while I was in law school I was able to write a persuasive memo to convince them that she was entitled to these benefits,” Taylor said.
Daily driver from St. Louis
Taylor earned a bachelor’s degree in business and human resources and a master’s degree in organizational leadership, both from Indiana Institute of Technology. Taylor was working in customer service for a veterans’ service organization in Washington, D.C. when her desire to attend law school revitalized.
She lived in Carbondale during her first semester before a sister convinced her to move to St. Louis. Taylor calls the nearly two-hour commute “windshield time.”
“There are people here who commute every day. It meant when I was here, I had to literally be here instead of letting my mind wander about other things,” Taylor said.
Enthusiasm and maturity
Taylor brought a “great amount” of enthusiasm and maturity to the law school, said Akami Eayrs, the law school’s director of admissions. She recalls Taylor wrote of her strong desire to help others in her law school application. Taylor was an active member and leader in student organizations, VLAP, and “a supporter and friend” to peers, Eayrs said.
“It has been a joy getting to know her, watching her grow personally and professionally, and witnessing her become the individual she wrote about in her law school application,” Eayrs said.
Earlier this year, Taylor was one of four students in the nation to earn a Ms. JD 2019 Summer Public Interest Scholarship. Given to rising second- or third-year female law students who are working in an unpaid position with a government agency, nonprofit organization, or unpaid judicial externship, the scholarship helps students with summer living expenses. Taylor spent three days a week this summer working as a law clerk with the Legal Aid of East Tennessee in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Thinks through problems
Sheila Simon, an assistant professor of law, said Taylor is generous, thoughtful and “her ability to think through a problem will make her service that much more valuable.” She arrived at the law school “ready to think,” Simon said.
“On the first day of property class I asked each student to tell us one thing she or he owned. Jarmeika said she owned her words,” Simon recalled. “With one sentence, she challenged the class to think beyond the obvious. And she has continued to do that.”
Taylor doesn’t sit back and wait for things to happen but takes charge, where she can, “of the things that will shape her career and life,” Simon said.
The ‘SIU Way’
Taylor, a non-traditional student, found the law school a “warming place.” Students, regardless of their class rank, are always there to help each other.
“There’s an SIU way,” Taylor said. “From talking to people at other law schools, they’re competitive; they are cutthroat. If that is what you want, great, go get it. But for me, I needed a smaller environment and I was hoping when I got here that it was a collaborative environment, which is what I found.”
Taylor viewed her interaction with faculty and staff as their “investment” in her success.
“It’s the relationships I’ve built and the relationships that I want to keep forever,” Taylor said. “They really made the process easier and helped me understand that I may not have come from somewhere where I saw other people go to law school, but that I can do it.”