Meet the Inaugural Class - Denisha McKenzie
Editor's note: This is part of a year-long series of features profiling the individual members of the UC Irvine School of Law Inaugural Class. We hope you enjoy getting to know a little bit about each student in this dynamic first class.
Hometown: Los Angeles
Undergrad major: Psychology and Child Development
Iconic symbol: A photo of the child she worked with in a preschool enrichment program
Within minutes of meeting Denisha McKenzie, you sense that she is a young woman with a big heart and strong convictions.
She speaks in gentle, almost soothing tones, but with a mature clarity that belies her years.
McKenzie grew up in South Central Los Angeles, then went to Boston to attend Tufts University. She braved culture shock and weather shock by getting involved with local social service programs, and discovered her passion - helping, supporting and advocating for children.
"I really love kids, and I didn't realize it until I got to college and I participated in a program called Jump Start," she explains. "I worked in a lot of low-income pre-schools to further low-income students' academic achievements from the onset of their education so they'd be more advanced when it was time for them to get into primary school.
"I fell in love with the child that I worked with there, and from that time on, which was my sophomore year in college, I decided to become a Child Development major."
Her work at Jump Start also launched her on her path to law school. McKenzie talks about the experience in the video, above.
But minutes after talking about her inspirations and aspirations, McKenzie breaks into a bright smile and calls herself a former "girly girl" who learned to toughen up during a two-month summer visit to Belize, her parents' home country, where she found both physical beauty and frogs and spiders in the shower.
"I loved every minute of it," she says of her Belize stay, "From the hot weather to the waterfalls to the island to the beaches, and to things I didn't like so much, like the mosquitoes."
She also was enchanted by the diversity of people in Belize: "You have Garifuna people who are direct descendants of Africa that still maintain a lot of their traditions; you have Creole people who are a mixture of Spanish, British and African; you have Maya Indians; you have Spanish people; you have a lot of immigrants from Central America who come and work there, and with all of those people, the unity in the country is amazing.
"Most people speak the Creole language in addition to their ethnic varieties. People get along and race and skin color aren't really an issue."
She wishes for that type of peaceful coexistence in Los Angeles, but aside from that, McKenzie's loyalty to her hometown is clear. Her big heart embraces the world, but it is firmly rooted in Southern California.
"I grew up in South Central Los Angeles. Once you're born here, no matter where you go, you always have to come back here."
More about Denisha, in her own words:
If I weren't in law school I'd be ...
Working for some non-profit, working with low-income communities on the social services aspect, definitely.
While waiting for the jury to reach a verdict, I would ...
Go listen to music in my car really loud, and sing. I really like R&B and that really relaxes me, particuarly India.Arie or some kind of jazz. I really like listening to music - that helps with any type of problem or stress.
"Law & Order" or "Boston Legal"?
"Law & Order." Particularly "SVU (Special Victims Unit)."
The Story Behind the Symbol (pictured in her portrait photo):
I have a picture of my Jump Start partner child that I received ... three years ago, and to this day I keep it because this child has been such an inspiration to me from the time that I met her.
Favorite song to study to:
I don't listen to music and study. It's either before or after. I'm the type of person where I do one thing at a time; I get too involved in the music and I'll get distracted from my studying, and vice versa.
Last non-legal book read:
I loved it - it was The Zahir by Paulo Coelho. It was about this man who lost his wife because he didnt really show that he loved her after some time, so she ended up leaving the country without saying anything to him. It was about him trying to find her and if he found her, that would mean that he loved her.
The end has this crazy twist where he eventually finds her in the Middle East but she's pregnant, and so he's faced with the decision of being with her or not being with her, and he chooses to be with her and accept the child because if it weren't for him not being there for her, she wouldnt be in that position. I remember finishing it and talking to my dad about it ... I wanted this happy ending like most American movies and books and it wasn't like that, and my dad was like, "I think he did the right thing; men sometimes do foolish things and he has to live with his decision." I wouldn't do that. But it was a really good book.
Last meal request:
I love all kinds of food - that's really hard (to choose). (Very brief pause.) OK, I'd have to say because both of my parents are from Belize, and I grew up with that culture, it would be a common Belizean dish: rice and beans with cole slaw and stewed chicken. That's a nice way to go out.