An Environment of Success: Faculty Sarah Adams-Schoen shares her first-generation student experience

Sarah Adams-Schoen

Sarah Adams-Schoen is an assistant professor at the University of Oregon School of Law. She is part of the Environmental and Natural Resource Law Center. Her environmental law scholarship has been called upon by state and national bar committees, private foundations, and government agencies including the Environmental Protection and Federal Emergency Management agencies to provide guidance related to coastal resilience.

Though Adams-Schoen is well-known for her professional accolades in the fields of climate change law, state and local government law, and land use, as a first-generation college graduate, her educational attainments have humble beginnings.

“Growing up, there was not much, if any, talk of college in our house,” Adams-Schoen said. “My family struggled to keep a roof over our heads and get medical attention when we needed it.”

With the pursuit of a higher education a lesser priority, it was pure grit and determination that led to her eventual attendance at Sarah Lawrence College.

“Throughout my childhood I had developed a habit of tackling things on my own, without asking for help, which is what I did when it came to college,” Adams-Schoen said.

Despite her successful completion of an undergraduate degree, Adams-Schoen recognizes that her college years were not without struggle. Like many first-generation students, she expresses the educational process as something she “didn’t have context for”. Without parental guidance to ease her fears and provide a sense of support, she felt alone and afraid to seek help.

"Experiences shape your understanding of the law, legal issues, and client issues in a way that can help make the law more inclusive and make clients feel empowered and understood."

“As an undergraduate and graduate student, I had so little money that I would often miss meals and couldn't afford basic necessities,” Adams-Schoen said. “Especially as an undergraduate, I felt like an outsider--I didn't know the social rules--and I also felt like the people around me had no idea who I was or what I'd experienced to get to that point.”

After earning an undergraduate degree, Adams-Schoen went on to get her Master's in Economics from the London School of Economics, eventually leading to a career as a senior policy analyst within solid waste management and recycling at Metro Regional Government in Portland, Oregon. Often, her work intersected with the law and local legislative process, something she developed a skill for. This opportunity to explore the legal field helped foster the confidence to continue her education and pursue a law degree from Lewis & Clark Law School.

Now, as a law professor, Adams-Schoen wants her students, especially those who are first-generation like she was, to recognize the ways in which their experiences can help them succeed in law school and law practice.

“Experiences shape your understanding of the law, legal issues, and client issues in a way that can help make the law more inclusive and make clients feel empowered and understood,” Adams-Schoen said.

Stronger from her own path to the legal field, Adams-Schoen is acutely aware that first-generation students “have something important to offer”.   

When recalling her struggles with imposter syndrome, the psychological feeling of not belonging in a given social group, she says that even today the syndrome can cause anxiety and get in the way of learning, performing, and practicing. She combats the falsehood by preemptively looking for ways she may sabotage herself as a result of conscious and unconscious outsider influence as well as imposter thoughts.

Despite that overcoming imposter syndrome is a daily struggle, her fears hardly show. She is admitted to the Oregon State Bar as a Pro Bono Member and to the Federal Bar for the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon. She serves on the editorial board of the Urban Lawyer, and as the Chair of the Land Use Committee of the ABA State and Local Government Law Section and as the Section’s liaison to the ABA’s Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. She is also the past chair of OGALLA: The LGBT Bar Association of Oregon.

Outside of her regular leadership commitments, Adams-Schoen frequently presents on climate change and local law, including recent national engagements as a featured speaker at the Columbia Journal of Environmental Law Climate Change Symposium, the keynote speaker at a New York Department of State and United States Geologic Survey conference on water resource management, and a lecturer for the AALS Environmental Law Section.

Anna Johnson, School of Law Communications