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There is very little of the usual about Colleen Samuels. A native of Jamaica who came to the United States when she was 18 years old, Samuels is now a mother of 10 children: five children with her spouse and five stepchildren. And if raising a family that large were not enough of a full-time job, Samuels, 40, decided in 1996 to go to law school. Then she added a simultaneous master’s degree in social work. (Her youngest child was born while she was still in school.) Oh yes, Samuels, a former New York City bus driver, also commuted by bus to Manhattan 75 miles each way from her home in Stroudsburg, Pa., the closest place she could afford to build a home that could accommodate 10 children and her parents. “I use [commuting] time to sleep,” she joked. In May, she was the first person to graduate simultaneously from Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and its Wurzweiler School of Social Work, in a four-year, dual-degree program developed for her. She passed the New York State Bar exam on her first try, and was admitted to practice in February. Samuels still commutes, but now to three-attorney Sciretta & Venterina, a law firm in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where she is a litigator. Ironically, she handles matters for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, one of the firm’s clients and Samuels’ former employer. “I always knew the path to anything is through education,” said Samuels. “I have a lot of children and I want to make sure they don’t work as hard as I do,” she said. In fact, the desire for a college education is what brought her to the United States. In 1980, she enrolled at the University of the District of Columbia. But with her first child just 4 years old and another on the way, she had to postpone her plans. She then found a job driving a bus in Brooklyn. “I had people that would ride with me all day because they had no one to talk to,” she said. She said she heard many stories of abuse, crime, poverty and violence. Many of the young riders she got to know wound up either in jail or dead, and their parents routinely complained of a lack of adequate legal representation, she said. It was then she realized she wanted to help these people, especially the kids, she said. Under the MTA rules, a pregnant woman cannot drive a bus, so during her next pregnancy, she took the opportunity to go back to school. “I felt I was not living up to my potential. If I didn’t do it now, I might never do it again,” she said. READING, WRITING, BABIES Samuels enrolled full time at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and finished in two years. Then she applied to Cardozo law school. Although she wanted to represent children as a lawyer, she also wanted a social work degree. But the school did not have a joint J.D./Master of Social Work. Undaunted, she went to Senior Associate Dean Michael Herz and asked him to start one. “We like to accommodate students,” said Herz, now a professor at the law school. “We are big believers of interdisciplinary study. … I think these two disciplines have a lot to learn from each other,” he said. According to Samuels, the plan had its drawbacks. On her end, she had to travel between the law school at Fifth Avenue and 12th Street to the school of social work at 185th and Amsterdam. “There were nights when I was up all night with a sick child and an exam the next morning. That’s when I asked myself, ‘Why did I do this?’ ” she said. The schools also had to work out the details, like coordinating schedules, payment and other logistics. But the joint program is now official. “What you want is someone for whom it is not just a resume builder. You want someone for whom these two areas fit together to make that person a better lawyer,” said Herz. Samuels was just that person, he added. “She’s always completely good-natured, energetic and on top of things,” he said of Samuels. “She has the rare combination of having real ability with the absolute conviction that anything is possible,” he added. Samuels joked that some of her optimism and motivation came unintentionally. “I would cry all night long and get up in the morning just to realize that my loans would come due, degree or no degree,” she said. “Uncle Sam is a great motivator.” “I always enjoyed a challenge. I wanted to be a pioneer,” she said. “It does something good for your ego.”

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