As a 3L at WVU Law, T'Keyah Nelms is turning her passion for helping others into a legal career and a lifestyle centered around public service.
In summer 2018, Nelms was a Certified Legal Intern at the Allegheny County Public Defender’s Office in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There, she represented more than 65 clients in criminal and domestic violence preliminary hearings in Pittsburgh’s Magisterial Courts, negotiated deals with Allegheny County assistant district attorneys and law enforcement officers, and responded to mail from incarcerated clients.
“Working with the Allegheny County Public Defender’s Office helped me realize I want to pursue a career in criminal law upon graduation,” said Nelms. “Having the opportunity to gain hands-on experience with clients and to speak in front of a judge every day served as a practical application of what I have learned in my law classes, and I gained specialized skills and knowledge within this area of the law.”
According to Nelms, her passion for serving as a voice for others stems in part from her own experience being diagnosed with thyroid cancer in her sophomore year of college. She lived with the cancer until she graduated and was able to get a job with health insurance to help offset the cost of surgery to remove her tumor.
“I started losing my voice because the tumor was resting on my vocal chords. Then, I couldn’t talk for three months due to the trauma of the invasive surgery and my vocal chords adapting to function without the tumor resting on them,” she explained. “I had to rely on my boyfriend at the time to speak for me, and I had to trust my doctor to advocate for my well being. I think of that a lot when I’m working with a client, or when I’m thinking about the types of clients in criminal law. Many clients are indigent and they can’t afford legal services. If they need a public defender, they need someone who cares about them and wants to understand their situation and advocate for them.”
Nelms’s work at the Allegheny County Public Defender’s Office was funded by the West Virginia Fund for Law in the Public Interest (WVFLIPI), a non-profit organization that offers paid fellowships for WVU Law students in public interest organizations. WVFLIPI is supported in part by the Public Interest Advocates (PIA), a student organization at WVU Law that holds fundraisers throughout the school year.
Nelms is an active member of PIA and helps with its fundraising efforts. She also completed a PIA-funded fellowship over the summer of her 1L year at ChildLaw Services, Inc. in Princeton, West Virginia.
“PIA has a great message and purpose,” she said. “They help students at WVU Law by raising money for public interest law fellowships, and they also help the surrounding community through volunteer work and donation drives.”
The service-oriented group at WVU Law is one of many for like-minded law students, faculty and staff who thrive on bettering the world. Outside of PIA, Nelms serves the entire WVU Law community as a member of the Community Service Council and OUTlaw, and she is also the Student Bar Association’s community service chair.
“Being a student who has had to rely on grants and scholarships to pay for my education, I appreciate the WVU community for helping me so tremendously,” said Nelms. “I want to give back to the community which has given me so much.”
Nelms is also president of the WVU Law chapter of the Black Law Students Association (BLSA), a national student organization that works with law schools and the legal community to gain an understanding of the challenges and needs of Black lawyers.
Before she was president, and even before she was officially a law student, BLSA helped welcome Nelms to Morgantown and surrounded her with positivity.
WVU Law staff connected Nelms with Veronique “Nikki” Vernot, a 2017 graduate and BLSA member who grew up near Nelms’s hometown. The two hit it off immediately, and Vernot shared her own experiences as a law student in West Virginia.
“Coming from Georgia, I wasn’t sure if West Virginia was the right fit for me,” Nelms explained. “But Nikki told me about BLSA and the resources it provides, and I knew I definitely wanted to be a part of that.”
When she got to Law School Hill as a 1L, members of BLSA who were 3Ls invited Nelms and her classmates to join the organization. Through BLSA activities and many group dinners together, the organization quickly turned into a close group of friends who shared their experiences and helped one another get through law school.
“BLSA afforded a family community in a place where I did not know anyone. Not only did the organization embrace me and surround me with like-minded people with similar goals, but it also continues to connect its members with other minority lawyers and law students as well as allies.”
Nelms became president of BLSA in her 2L year with the goal of facilitating events that celebrate diversity and promote fellowship among students from all walks of life. The organization co-hosted a successful town hall discussion on social issues entitled Different Hues in 2017. They coordinated programming to promote Black History Month, and they worked with SBA host on a blood drive. They also served their annual Soul Food Luncheon that draws in a large crowd from in and outside of the law school with home cooked food and fellowship.
“BLSA highlights issues specific to the Black community, but it embraces everyone,” Nelms explained. “As law students, we are all going to be attorneys, and we will all have diverse clients after law school. We will all need to advocate for things that we may not completely agree with or that we had never thought about before. I want to help facilitate ways for people from various social groups at the law school and beyond to be able to share their differing perspectives in an effective way so we can all learn from one another and grow both personally and professionally.”
Before WVU Law
Before she came to law school, Nelms was active in the community around her hometown of Lithonia, Georgia, and at her undergraduate alma mater, Kennesaw State University. She participated in community service activities like cooking and serving food at the Salvation Army, and she was active in Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., a social action sorority that focuses on raising educational, environmental, international, political, physical and mental awareness.
“My sorority gives its members a bond and a lifetime commitment to one another, and we are always doing things in our community,” said Nelms. “We help people learn how to handle their finances, we work with Habitat for Humanity, and we mentor young girls. Delta Sigma Theta works with anything that involves people and the welfare of society, and we always try to put our special touch on our work.”
When Nelms came to WVU for law school, she pledged the Greater Morgantown Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. and soon became the organization’s vice president, parliamentarian, and recording secretary. She is also the advisor for the Omicron Upsilon Chapter of the sorority at WVU.