We Did That by Lerato Oguntoye
So I did something.
And everyone I tell that I did this thing, asks me how I did it.
Have you ever done something that you had no choice but to do, and when the results are successful, it’s like there was no other option?
In February of this year, I sat for the Georgia Bar Exam while I was 8 months pregnant and I passed. On my first attempt.
Now to put it into perspective the Bar Exam is considered one of those super difficult exams in the United States. It is a two-day closed book exam. The Georgia exam is made up of 19 Georgia specific areas of law and 8 federal areas of law. In total that’s 27 subjects. The February 2019 Georgia Bar Exam had a pass rate of 43%, while the 2020 February Exam had a 40% pass rate. The Bar Exam is a right of passage for anyone wanting to practice law and the last hurdle in becoming an attorney.
So how did I do it? A little background to set the scene for the climax of this story: I’m originally from South Africa and moved to the United States in 2017. At the time I moved I had a successful legal career with 10 years under my belt. I decided to move because I was getting married and my husband is from the US and we had decided that we would start our marital life in the US. I had never been to the United States prior to meeting my husband so it honestly was just that place I saw in the movies and series.
“It’s good to start over. It will be scary but you will see what you’re really made of; it’s the best opportunity to achieve what you never thought you could.” – Jennifer Coletta
The transition has been rough. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. To leave everything you know; your family, your support structure, your home, your comforts and to start all over again is not easy. I moved to a place where I had no family or friends apart from my husband and his family. A place where no one knew me professionally and I had zero networks. It was literally starting from ground zero. And to add to the mix I was now a foreigner – or in US lingo, I was an immigrant – during a time when immigration was back in the spotlight in US politics.
In the mix of moving, I was also dealing with the transition of going from single to married. I made the decision to change my last name. And I found myself at times staring at my new name and asking myself who this woman was? I knew exactly who Lerato Lamola was; she’d been with me from birth. But I had no idea who Lerato Oguntoye was and what she was about. It was honestly one of the strangest experiences of my life…. and I often wonder if other newly married women feel the same way. I almost felt like I needed to make a name for myself; give this new name its own story.
It was not only a physical transition but it was an emotional, spiritual, and mental transition too.
The last 3 years have been a hike. For some parts of the hike I’ve been on top of the mountains and able to see the scenic views ahead, while other parts have involved being low in the multiple valleys which only get sunlight for brief moments of the day. It’s been up and down!
The journey to today has been a rediscovery of who I am and what makes me me. It’s been giving life to my new name. It has been a testing of what makes an African woman an African woman. As a Black woman, I feel we live our lives with the unwritten rule that failure isn’t an option. We continually push even when everything is against us. We continue to rise each morning to face a new day despite our emotions. We make a way where there is no way.
Creating an existence for my new name meant embarking on one of the realest journeys I’ve been on in a while. On the one hand, I was trying to establish myself in the US. On the other hand, I was trying to be a wife and start this married life that everyone talks about. It wasn’t easy; especially because for a large part of the first 18 months in the US I wasn’t in a good mental space. I won’t say I was depressed but I wasn’t emotionally settled. I was not present. I was anxious, stressed, fighting homesickness, and longing for home comforts that were foreign to the US. Irritated at having to start from scratch and frustrated at the constant patronizing attitude I’d get from those who didn’t understand an African professional is just as good as an American professional.
And in the midst of feeling emotionally unsettled, I was pushing to try to get my ducks in a row so I could continue practicing law in the United States. For the past 3 years, I have had no choice but to make it happen. Through the tears, frustration, arguments, patronizing attitudes towards foreigners, and just straight-up racism at times….. I have had to push. That’s what we do as black African women. That’s how we roll. You can throw us anywhere in the world and we will make a plan.
When I found out I was pregnant, it was a genuine moment of celebration for my husband and me. However, I knew it did not change my timelines. I wasn’t going to postpone taking the Bar Exam. I felt I didn’t have the luxury of waiting any longer and I was unsure I’d have time to take the exam once the baby was here.
So how did I do it? What was the actual game plan?
I spent 4 months preparing for the bar exam. I literally studied every single day, 7 days a week. If the word discipline had a brand ambassador, I was that brand ambassador for those 4 months. I had to use the time I set aside for studying each day efficiently because I was pregnant; I couldn’t put in as many hours as my counterparts and late-night studying was off the table. Yes, I had this really serious personal goal I wanted to achieve, but I also had a new life growing in me and I needed to take care of my health for baby and me.
This last leg of the transition took laser focus. I cancelled all social events. Skipped going to church on Sundays. My husband and I didn’t have a babymoon because I was studying. I logged off from all social media until after my exam. I literally cut out anything and everything that didn’t have to be done over those 4 months.
I had to be selfish which is extremely difficult when you have obligations to family and other loved ones in your life, but I had to continuously remind myself that my emotional stability is my responsibility. Achieving this goal was my responsibility and I couldn’t expect anyone to carry that out for me, regardless of how supportive those around me were. The transition from life in SA to life in the USA was my baby to carry and I found that sometimes along the way those around me couldn’t understand why I was so focused and studying all the time.
I treated this goal like failure was not even an option. I guess in my mind failure honestly was not an option – who knew when I’d get a chance to take the exam again with the baby on the way.
“Losers quit when they fail. Winners fail until they succeed.” – Unknown
It would be obnoxious of me to make it seem like I did this massive feat in my own strength. That’s a lie. I received grace and support from my husband and in-laws to take the time to study over those 4 months. My support structure stepped in with words of wisdom, prayers, and encouragement. I relied very heavily on my faith and I know that it is only through God’s grace and favor that I was able to pass the Bar Exam and then go on to deliver a healthy baby with no major complications.
I clung to my spiritual disciplines as intensely as I clung on to my books. I meditated on a daily basis. Recited my affirmations before studying each day. Took time each day to pray and worship.
This crazy goal of taking the Bar Exam while 35 weeks pregnant and passing required an even crazier level of focus and execution.
I had to use every weapon in my personal artillery – physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional.
“Nothing is impossible with God.” – Luke 1:37
Through this process, I have learnt that nothing is impossible. Crazy goals require crazy intense focus. It may mean me shutting off the noise in my life and being laser-focused for periods of time in life. However crazy focus also requires balance – as intensely as I studied, I balanced it with just as intense self-care.
My beautiful daughter and I sat for the Bar Exam and we passed. Mommy is not just mommy; she has a story behind her name. I can’t say that I did this. My daughter and I partook in this last leg of transition together. I have to say we did this.
We did that.
Lerato is a black South African woman who is a lawyer and aspiring writer. She has a deep passion for the Lord and following the path He has set her on. She is passionate, driven and kind. Lerato is a wife, new mother, daughter, sister, and friend. She is a woman who is unshakeable yet immensely compassionate and I respect her greatly. She also attained her Masters of Law at Emory and was honored as the 2019 recipient of the Emory Law LLM Leadership Award. She was also recently admitted as an attorney in the US! She is not a stranger to our blogsite, and you can read her other pieces here.
Thank you for taking the time to read sis. I hope this testimony has inspired you to go after your dreams. Please leave a comment for Lerato and don’t give up on your goals.