By Joe Wyatt

There is no doubt that students who begin their exploration of academia at a community college can and do matriculate to universities of great distinction.

A sterling example of that is former Amarillo College student Roman Leal, who in May received his juris doctorate from Yale Law School. The accomplishment was achieved just three short years after he scored in the top three percent on the law school admissions test – the LSAT.

Leal, whose transferable Amarillo College credit hours laid the foundation for a bachelor’s degree in English at West Texas A&M University, chose Yale over a number of law schools to which he was accepted, including Harvard.

Leal’s next stop will be at prestigious California-based law firm Munger, Tolles & Olsen, where he will launch his professional career this summer. Moreover, he will begin serving a career-expanding clerkship in January with Judge Gabriel Sanchez of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

While his path to a career in jurisprudence was atypical – and there is more to his story than academics – Leal believes that some portion of his scholarly success was achieved not in spite of his community college experience, but because of it.

“I loved my time at Amarillo College,” Leal said. “I especially loved the environment and the diversity in the classrooms, the ethnic and age diversity, the diversity of backgrounds of all the people. It was such a profound environment in which to learn and interact, so enlightening, like drinking water from a fire hose.

“I think only four of us in my class at Yale started out at community colleges,” he said, “and I think we had an enormous advantage over our peers because we’ve seen and interacted with a diverse cross section of the country, people with whom most students at Yale Law School are unfamiliar.”

Leal was 17 years old in 2009 when he first enrolled at AC, and he was already a budding entrepreneur at the time.

Roman and his girlfriend Amy, now his wife, were both 17 when they launched a wholesale coffee-roasting business in their garage. It grew and by the third year they decided to expand into the retail market and opened a shop. Evocation Coffee flourished, but it also required a lot of additional time to operate, so Roman, who had amassed a couple dozen credit hours at AC by then, stopped out of college to pour his heart and soul into the coffee business.

Yet there came a day when an altogether different dream began to brew…

The way Roman tells it, he and a friend, both 25 at the time, were having cups of Evocation’s best when the friend pointed out that both their career paths were basically set in stone. By holding to their present trajectories, the friend said, they could pretty much predict how their professional lives would unfold over the next 25 years and, basically, foresee what life will be like for each of them at 50.

“I decided right at that moment that I didn’t want to be selling coffee when I was 50,” Leal says. “I mean, I loved the coffee business, and we were doing great and were just about to expand to another city. But I knew that if I was ever going to do something other than sell coffee I would have to act right then, and so I did.

“I like solving puzzles, and I like debating and writing,” he said. “Becoming a lawyer seemed like a natural career track that would satisfy all those passions.”

Roman and Amy immediately began outsourcing the day-to-day grind of their coffee empire. Roman undertook more classes at AC, focusing on English. Those accomplished, he transferred to WT and set his sights on the study of law, preferably at an Ivy League school, a plan he obviously saw to fruition.

At Yale he was handpicked by the dean, Heather Gerken, to serve as her research assistant after she was appointed to President Biden’s commission to review judiciary issues such as increasing the size of the Supreme Court and mandatory retirement ages for federal judges. He also was privileged to serve an internship with U.S. District Judge James Boasberg in the District of Columbia.

Yet even having enjoyed many unique and impactful mentorships since his initial foray into higher education, Leal readily continues to give his first College its due.

“I’ve had immense privilege of learning from amazing professors at WT and Yale, but I can say without a doubt that the faculty at Amarillo College are first class,” he said. “They serve a student body with a wide range of unique challenges, yet they rise to the occasion to inspire a love of learning in incredible ways.

“Amarillo college was close to home, incredibly inexpensive, and I was able to take a lot of courses that were very interesting and useful, like business law, which helped me at our coffee shop and at Yale Law School, as well.

“AC is where I developed my love of English. I’m eternally indebted to AC for my experiences there.”