Kiki Carson on Challenges, College and California

USC Gould Law JD, Kiki Carson, photographed holding an award she received, standing in front of a USC Gould School of Law banner.
Khadeijdra “Kiki” Carson (JD 2019)

Khadeijdra “Kiki” Carson’s (JD 2019) story will not just impress you. It may leave you gasping. And laughing in places. This intrepid soon-to-be law school grad has faced up to some daunting obstacles with pragmatism, determination and a triple-scoop of humor. Get to know her in this Q&A. 

What was your greatest challenge growing up? 

When I was eight, my mom was involved in an embezzlement scandal. We moved, and a few months later, she didn’t come home. No one told me where she was. They arrested her and convicted her on the spot. She had just had another kid, my sister. My whole year of second grade, we lived with her sister, my aunt. It was very confusing. Even when I understood she was in jail, I thought, jail is for bad people. And embezzlement? What does that even mean? 

How did this affect you? 

The bright spot was my aunt was a school financial secretary, and she had all these books in her garage. I found a lot of solace in books. I started reading like crazy. At the time the school did an accelerated reading program, and by the end of second grade, I got the accelerated reader of the year award. I beat fifth graders! My aunt really nurtured my love for reading and allowed me to excel in school. She had four of her own kids to raise. It brought stress to her life. But she paid attention to me. That’s when I started learning books were good. 

You were responsible for your siblings. How did that affect you?

 I was nine when my mom got out of prison. Then from age nine to 14, we began this process where my mom would have a kid, go back to prison, have a kid, go back to prison … After a year of leaving prison, she had to pay restitution. Any time she failed to pay restitution, she went back to prison. It’s hard for a convicted felon to get a job. To make matters worse, my mom and stepdad got a divorce after my youngest sibling was born. It brought a ton of instability to our lives. We lived in 10 different places from the time I was 14 to 18. I still feel a lot of ownership and responsibility for my younger siblings. It grounded me. I never felt the need to fly the coop and escape. They were so young. I was in school but also raising kids, washing clothes, cooking dinner. I would get out of cheer practice, pick up the kids from daycare, take them home, start bath water, put on a TV show, and do homework from 9 p.m. to midnight. 

When did you start thinking about college? What was the process like for you?

 I knew I was going to college in my senior year. There was no real support from the school and my family couldn’t afford it. I applied for more than 70 external scholarships. I had no understanding of financial aid or the application process. I applied to 13 colleges. Some of the offers were good, but I thought if I had to take out loans, I was doing something wrong. I went to the University of Memphis because it was a free school.  

What was undergrad like for you? 

In college, I found my rhythm. It was the first time I wasn’t responsible for anyone. I felt a lot of freedom to pursue my interests. I studied abroad three times – first in Cuba, before the sanctions, then London and Berlin, and then Morocco. I’m grateful to my mom because when I got accepted to go to Cuba she was like, “Awesome.” She encouraged me to go further than she went. 

Did you know in college that you wanted to study law? 

When I was at Memphis, I got interested in early childhood advocacy. I initially thought I would be a schoolteacher or social worker. Then I did a summer internship in Washington D.C., working for a children’s safety law policy firm. Everyone in D.C. is a lawyer, so you quickly find out who the real movers and shakers are. As a firm statement of my commitment, I took my LSAT books with me when I studied abroad in Morocco in my senior year. I graduated from University of Memphis in December 2015, and from December to August I worked as a nanny and a house sitter, trying to relax before going to law school. 

How did you decide on the Gould School of Law? 

One of my best friends goes to UCLA and said she’d love it if I came to California so we could ‘do life’ together here. When I looked at USC, I had my sights set on a more public interest-oriented school. We went to the California Redwoods for a camping trip, and we slept on the beach, and I said, ‘OK, I am 100 percent sold on California.’ While I was on the trip, USC called me unprompted and asked if I had committed to a law school. I said I was in California and could come by. I was amazed by the beautiful campus and sold on the Trojan Network. I said, ‘Sign me up and call me Trojan.’ 

What was your experience of law school? 

I always felt I could walk up straight with my head held high. My first year of law school challenged that. It was severe culture shock. It was not a hostile environment, but I had never been around so many people who were wealthy and whose wealth was normal. It made my story feel even more abnormal. I had to learn to persevere through that. I had helpful advocates in Prof. Bob Rasmussen and Prof. Rebecca Brown. Prof. Camille Rich and Prof. Emily Ryo invited me into their homes. All the professors and staff made me feel welcome. Prof. Rasmussen told me we ought to support stories like mine. With such great support, how can you not push through and succeed?

 Did you join any organizations? 

I would not have survived law school without the First Generation Professionals program. That’s where I took my wig off. It gave me practical wisdom about things I could not put words to, like how to explain the work I’m doing to my family. I was president of FGP. I also loved working with the Public Interest Law Foundation (PILF) my second year. They do fantastic work, and it’s amazing to see students, year after year, own the vision of PILF. I also belong to the Health Law Students Association and the Black Law School Association. BLSA has existed at the law school because African-Americans are a small part of law school. I’m graduating with seven other black students this year. 

What area of law did you ultimately decide to pursue?

 Health law. I’m interested in fraud, waste, and abuse. I worked at two hospitals and a health insurance company. Health law is so nuanced and complicated and highly regulated, and the rules are shifting quickly. I sought out law firms with substantial health practices or that focused on health law, I networked, reached out to alumni, got a clear understanding of my path. One door led to another, and Hooper, Lundy, and Bookman in Century City, which doesn’t really hire junior attorneys, but somehow I convinced them I am awesome. I am joining them in the fall. 

Are your siblings thinking about college careers? 

All my siblings are in middle school and high school. One sister is almost ready for college. I want her to feel college is more accessible than I felt it was. If they don’t want to go to college, it’s their choice, but I will strongly urge them to go. 

What advice would you give to students entering law school? 

You really have to be your best advocate. That’s what convinced me I could be a good lawyer. I’ve been a champion for myself the last seven years. Maybe it’s an unfair ask, but it’s the reality of a first-generation student – the first to go to college, first to go to law school. You have to put yourself in uncomfortable spaces and ask for what you want. 

What’s next for you? 

The bar. Classes start on May 22, and the bar is July 30 and 31. I just keep thinking that lots of people have already done it. It’s not ‘Mission: Impossible.’ It’s just ‘Mission: Very Difficult.’

By Leslie Ridgeway

>Read the original story on USC Gould School’s website.