Chinese native Monica Steele finds poise and promise in America
Monica Steele was born in Central China near the major city of Wuhan and earned a bachelor’s degree in law at a university in Shanghai. A global financial colossus with more than 24 million people, Shanghai is the largest city proper by population on Earth. Located at the mouth of Yangtze River (the longest river in Asia) on the East China Sea, Shanghai is also a world-class seaport and home to one of the planet’s most spectacular skylines. As a country girl with little experience beyond her hometown, Monica was not intimidated by life in a high-speed megalopolis. She worked in Shanghai for 10 years before moving to Minnesota with her American husband, Greg Steele.
When the moment came for her to say good-bye to China and move to America, Monica felt that she was more than ready. She had met a number of American exchange students at her university. She had also read several books about the United States and had even gone on a trip to Phoenix, Ariz., which she loved. “I thought I knew Americans,” she said with a wistful smile. “I thought I understood how life would be in America. I had no idea.”
Monica did not expect the degree of culture shock she experienced in her new country. What she found most disconcerting were her daily interactions with Americans. She knew the language, but did not know what to say. Americans proved more aloof than people raised in China and less apt to engage in familiar conversation right away. Social cues for Monica did nothing but run awry. Her first two years in Minnesota were marked by depression and uncertainty.
“I was always worried that I would say something stupid or weird,” she said. “I didn’t know how to deal with the simplest things—things I took for granted in China. I felt like a child; I felt disabled.”
That fear of coming across as weird or different prevented Monica from acclimating to her new home. What made matters worse was how she had always held herself to a very high standard. She hated feeling helpless and hopeless. “In China, I was very opinionated,” she said. “You could almost say I was a little wild. Like many women in China, I was very self-confident. All that left me in America.”
She saw how many other Chinese newcomers shied away from the constant pressure to adapt, withdrawing into cocoons where they spoke mostly Mandarin and shopped at Chinese-run businesses. “I realized the cultural barrier was going to be almost too tough to cross,” she said, “but I also knew in my heart that I needed to put everything down and start fresh.”
Monica Steele got that fresh start when she enrolled in the Paralegal program at Inver Hills Community College. She set her misgivings aside and took general education classes that were more than a little scary: Intercultural Communication, Interpersonal Communication and Public Speaking, the latter course causing her to tremble with anxiety when her turn arrived to give a speech.
“I have so many warm memories from my time at Inver Hills,” she said. “Every campus has a personality. I loved Inver Hills.”
Monica added that everyone she met in the Paralegal program was welcoming and nice. “My worries simply disappeared,” she said. “I was loud in my class discussions even though I spoke with an accent. The study atmosphere was brisk. The classes are small. The instructors know everybody. They know where you are and they care about you. My instructors had very high performance requirements, but that didn’t keep them from being kind and helpful.”
Well respected in the legal community, the Paralegal program at Inver Hills has been approved by the American Bar Association since 1978. The program offers a highly challenging curriculum designed for new or career-changing students from diverse backgrounds. As a paralegal student at Inver Hills, you will benefit from in-depth training in law and legal procedures along with a practical paralegal internship experience.
Monica reported that one of her paralegal instructors, Carol Schoen, helped her go through some tough assignments with patience and understanding. “Carol is a very gentle and sweet person,” she said.
When Monica took a class from Mary McLaughlin, another paralegal instructor, she almost wanted to cry at the beginning because the coursework seemed too hard. “But by the end of each class, you wanted to smile because you realized that you learned so much,” Monica said. “Mary went through all of my projects with detailed comments. Even a missing article would not be overlooked. She encouraged me in so many ways.”
Mary McLaughlin remembers Monica as an exceptionally determined student. “Monica has a strong desire to learn,” she said, “and she is not satisfied until she has mastered her subject matter.”
Mary added that the Inver Hills Paralegal program places a heavy emphasis on legal analysis, writing skills and communication skills. “That emphasis sets our program apart from other programs,” she said. “Those skills are keys to success in the legal field—and paralegals can choose career pathways in a variety of venues, including law firms, corporations and government.” Nontraditional opportunities can be found at nonprofits focused on family law, social services and community shelters.
ABA definition of legal assistant/paralegal *
“A legal assistant or paralegal is a person, qualified by education, training or work experience who is employed or retained by a lawyer, law office, corporation, governmental agency or other entity and who performs specifically delegated substantive legal work for which a lawyer is responsible.”* Courtesy of the America Bar Association Standing Committee on Paralegals
Monica was impressed by Sally Dahlquist, the Paralegal program’s director, and how hard she works. “Sometimes Sally didn’t even have time for lunch,” she said. “She has to deal with so many people everyday, but she keeps everything perfectly organized. And she can remember every student. Although she was busy, she always had time for me. She was very approachable. I went to her a lot for advice, both academically and personally—and she gave me a lot of good advice. It takes a lot to do her job, and Sally does it wonderfully.”
Shanghai is a place Sally Dahlquist has in common with Monica, having visited the city in 1980, or about the time free market reforms got underway. Sally recalls Monica as very friendly and equipped with a “wonderfully positive attitude.”
“She really wants to do her best,” Sally said, “and you can see it in everything she does. I was also impressed by how Monica is so appreciative of anything you do for her.”
Sally’s job as director of the Paralegal program allows her to work closely with students during their 180-hour internships. “You focus on each student individually, learning their skills and areas of interest,” she said. “Then you go out and find a good fit. I love it. The students are so excited. They really want to do well.”
Sally noted that supervisors at internship sites are happy to serve as mentors to their paralegal interns. “I hear from site supervisors almost every day,” she said. “They always seem to learn something new from our students—and they find that their practices are energized by the enthusiasm our students bring to their internships. We train our students to do what they are actually going to do in a law office—and that shows on the job.”
As for missing lunch, Sally admitted that sometimes happens. She also pointed out that Monica brought her lunch one day, a traditional Chinese meal she made herself. “That lunch was delicious,” Sally said with a smile.
“We train our students to do what they are actually going to do in a law office —and that shows on the job.” — Sally Dahlquist, Paralegal program director
Monica graduated from Inver Hills in fall 2013, earning an A.S. degree from the Paralegal program. She quickly decided that she wanted to continue her education. With letters of recommendation from Sally Dahlquist, Carol Schoen and Mary McLaughlin, she enrolled in the LL.M. program at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn.
“The LL.M. (Master of Laws) program is a one-year degree program that provides foreign lawyers or foreign law-educated people with a rigorous academic experience, exposing them to a broad array of legal skills and knowledge,” said Monica, who is gearing up to take the LSAT, or Law School Admission Test, this summer. “My plan is to complete the LL.M. program and then go on to earn my J.D. and pass the bar. I want to practice intellectual property law with direct connections to business in China. Becoming a lawyer will fulfill a lifelong dream.”
When she isn’t studying, Monica enjoys playing golf with her husband. She reported with a smile that he is crazy about the sport and quite good. She excels at Ping-Pong, using her technical deftness to overmatch the power game of her husband. She reads nonfiction, mostly geography and history. And she loves spending time with Peony, the couple’s 5-year-old daughter.
For more information about the Paralegal program at Inver Hills Community College, contact:
- Sally Dahlquist, J.D.
Paralegal Program Director
- Mary McLaughlin, J.D.
Paralegal Program Instructor
For more information about the Inver Hills Alumni Association, contact:
- Mary Dimick