May 18, 2020
Las Vegas, N.M. – Two New Mexico Highlands University criminal justice alumnae who studied together as undergraduates are both headed to law school at the University of New Mexico in August.
Brittany Dutton-Leyda and Joanna Velasquez both graduated summa cum laude in 2019 from the Highlands Santa Fe Center with their bachelor’s degrees. Dutton-Leyda had a double major in sociology and anthropology while Velasquez had a minor in sociology and anthropology.
Dutton-Leyda and Velasquez, who are both fulltime paralegals and were throughout their Highlands University education, said they have a friendship that dates back six years to when they studied together at Santa Fe Community College to become paralegals.
“I believe we formed a lifelong friendship with each other and hope we can be study buddies at the UNM School of Law,” Dutton-Leyda said.
Velasquez said, “We became instant friends in paralegal school and have traveled the journey together to law school ever since.”
Dutton-Leyda, 33, said she is interested in practicing criminal law.
“I love the law, have a passion for criminal justice reform, and truly want to help people. I would like to become a public defender and would also be interested in working for an organization like The Innocence Project. My goal is to make a difference in the community through public service,” Dutton-Leyda said.
Velasquez, 24, said she is most interested in pursuing civil law, specifically in the area of personal injury.
“I am currently a legal assistant to a personal injury attorney on the plaintiff’s side and it is so rewarding to see how our work can make such a positive difference during the often most difficult time of an individual’s life,” Velasquez said.
Velasquez said she was inspired to become an attorney a number of years ago when she observed an attorney who loved his work helping individuals recover physically, mentally, emotionally and economically from injustices they had suffered.
Dutton-Leyda said Highlands played a key role in preparing her for law school.
“Highlands has amazing professors who help teach students to think critically, analyze and think outside the box. Dr. Rebecca Álvarez’ classes were particularly illuminating and inspiring,” Dutton-Leyda said.
Velasquez said she learned to efficiently apply criminal justice concepts to her written arguments at Highlands.
“I was able to improve my research and application skills through assignments in which my professors challenged me to apply criminal justice concepts to events occurring on a state and local level. Dr. Rebecca Álvarez taught with a passion that was unlike anything I had ever seen from a professor. Her enthusiasm was always infectious,” Velasquez said.
Álvarez said Dutton-Leyda and Velasquez both manage many life responsibilities with grace and are exceptionally persistent.
“I expect Brittany and Joanna to be socially conscious attorneys who use their law degrees to better their communities,” Álvarez said.