Consider this scenario for a new legal TV drama in the vein of ‘The Paper Chase’: A brainy young teenager enrolls early at a community college and earns an Associate in Arts degree at age 17, learns the legal ropes of a courtroom as a member of a mock trial team, is awarded her Bachelor of Arts degree at a prestigious Southeastern university, and enrolls at a U.S. News & World Report-ranked law school before age 20.
Sounds like Must-See TV, right? It’s no television series, but real life.
Mary Spektor, an Alamance Community College alumna and University of North Carolina graduate-elect, will find herself later this year enrolled at Elon University School of Law at age 19. She completed this feat by sheer determination and grit, and with a firm vision from a young age of what she wanted to accomplish.
Mary Anna Spektor was born in Brooklyn, New York in 2001 to a family of immigrants from Ukraine. The Spektor family—her father a civil engineer and mother a geriatric caregiver–was searching for a place that would hold a brighter future for Mary and her older brother. When Mary was two, the family moved to Ridgefield, New Jersey, where Mary spent her youth playing the piano, enjoying photography and kayaking, and speaking both English and her parents’ native Russian.
Mary’s academic aptitude was evident early. Her first grade teacher advised her parents to skip her ahead to third grade, but that advice was put on hold. Still, Mary was precocious to the extent that she knew by middle school she wanted to be someone who helped people in trouble—and for Mary that meant setting a career goal of becoming an attorney.
By age 14 Mary and her family had moved to Burlington, North Carolina where she began classes at Western Alamance High School. Near the end of her sophomore year, a school counselor recommended that Mary take college-level credit classes at Alamance Community College for the remainder of her high school career. Mary and her parents learned about ACC’s popular and free Career and College Promise program, a state initiative that allows high school students to earn free college credits. To say that Mary took this opportunity seriously is an understatement, becoming the first Western Alamance High student to complete 60 college credits at age 17 to earn a full Associate in Arts degree that guaranteed her full junior class status when she transferred to UNC-Chapel Hill.
“I felt I was up to the challenge and became a full-time student at ACC during my final two years of high school,” said Mary.
While working toward her two-year degree at ACC, Mary excelled in classes that included history, philosophy, music appreciation, and literature.
“I also took classes at ACC that I thought would strengthen my future law studies, such as public speaking with Dr. Kevin Sargent and business law with Professor Al Catlos,” she said.
Mary realized she should take advantage of anything available that would help her move closer to her college and career goals; therefore, she applied to and was accepted into the Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program, better known as CSTEP. The program guarantees admission to UNC-Chapel Hill for qualified community college students with the stipulation that they participate in developmental and cultural events both at ACC and UNC.
“Being in the CSTEP program was a wonderful experience. It brought me closer to attending UNC Chapel Hill, my dream undergraduate university, and connected me with other ACC students who were likeminded. The members of CSTEP built such strong and supportive connections with one another that continue to this day,” she said.
As Mary worked hard on earning those 60 college credits while also studying for her high school diploma, she budgeted her time for co-curricular activities that would support her goals. She believes those experiences were crucial to her development.
Co-curricular refers to activities and learning experiences that complement what students are learning in school. More specifically, co-curricular allows students to build their own education that is developmental, transformative, and future-focused.
“My co-curricular experiences at ACC helped me grow,” said Mary. “I involved myself with several clubs, such as Mock Trial, History Club, Chess Club, Math and Physics Club, and I played the piano for numerous events at the college. Such connections were vital as I prepared for my future. Yet I think it’s important to acknowledge that this alone is not enough. It is important to have a strong supportive community. Positive connections within that community gives students a network of encouragement that will help them move past challenges faced along the way.”
It was the Mock Trial Team at ACC that provided Mary an opportunity to deepen her love for the legal career she dreamed about.
“Law has been my passion and dream since the age of four. Even then, I played games pretending that I was helping clients in court and wrote contracts for family members to sign,” she said. “My aim as a child always remained to help others. As I grew older, I witnessed how truly difficult it was for the people around me who were affected by certain conflicts. Many faced problems regarding family law and injuries from car accidents. My goal in life is to not only win cases for my future clients, but to also minimize their stress from the conflicts as much as possible during the process.”
Mary was elected president of the Mock Trial Team and took on additional responsibilities that included helping to prepare her fellow team members for competition against four-year schools, helping teach direct and cross examinations and objections, and organize meetings and trips to courthouses.
“It was a lot of work, but since I had a passion for the law long before being a part of ACC’s
Mock Trial team, the experience brought me closer to what it will be like defending real clients in court. I am very thankful for the opportunities that Mock Trial gave me,” she said.
“Our college offers multifaceted co-curricular learning opportunities that significantly enrich our students’ learning experiences,” said Dr. Kevin Sargent, faculty advisor to the Mock Trial Team. In Mary’s case, CCP [Career and College Promise classes] provided her early access to CSTEP, and that program gave her valuable experiential learning opportunities and prepared her for transfer success. Mock Trial extended what Mary was learning in her curriculum courses outside the classroom, developing vital communication, critical thinking and leadership skills.”
Mary cites a particular memory from her time with the Mock Trial Team that solidified her determination to enter law school. During our intramural competition at Alamance Community College. At an April 2019 competition, as Mary cross-examined a “witness” she followed her instinct and improvised a different legal argument than what she had planned.
“I knew it would help my team succeed with the case,” explained Mary. “This type of moment is one that many lawyers experience during a trial, and to suddenly experience it made me feel like a real attorney. My team won the Mock Trial competition, and I won the award for Top Attorney. Such an achievement gave me confidence in my abilities as a future lawyer and strengthened my resolve to gain acceptance to Elon’s law school.”
When Mary graduated from ACC and transferred to UNC-Chapel Hill in 2019, she carried with her experience and leadership skills she did not possess before she attended Alamance Community College. Those qualities helped keep her laser-focused on her next steps and she began the lengthy process of applying to Elon’s law school as she double-majored in History and Philosophy at UNC.
Jump to Mary’s final semester in Chapel Hill. On the afternoon of February 10, 2021, Mary received the most important and exciting email in her young life: an acceptance from Elon University School of Law for the fall 2021 term.
“It was what I have dreamed for all my life,” she said. “The moment I saw that I was accepted, all of my stress over the long application process vanished: the sleepless months, sacrificed summers and breaks, and the myriads of work had been all worth it.”
When Mary begins her first year of law school this fall, she will be working toward a career in civil litigation and specializing in family law and injury claims. Because Elon’s law school program is two and a half years long—rather than the traditional three years at most law schools—Mary hopes to get her career underway by age 22.
Through it all, and now with another exciting chapter about to begin, Mary Spektor has remained grounded. And she hasn’t forgotten how it all started.
“The two years that I spent at Alamance Community College were truly the most memorable, adventurous, loving, and best years of my life,” she said. “I met my closest friends there through classes, mock trial, and various student clubs. The professors and faculty at ACC are some of the kindest and most influential people I know, who always went the extra mile to help those around them. They are the definition of what a community truly is. Alamance Community College is one of the most important factors that helped me on my journey to becoming an Elon University law student at age 19. I will always be proud to be an alumna of Alamance Community College.”