Your Impact

The Unlikely Scholar

He’d heard that education was the path out of poverty. He just didn’t believe that path was meant for someone like him.

By David Finnerty UF Advancement Published March 6, 2018

Growing up, Patrick Brathwaite never imagined himself a law student. He was too unmotivated in high school. Too rudderless. Too poor, this son of Spanish-speaking immigrants.

“As a matter of statistics, I’m one of the least likely people to even be in law school,” says Brathwaite, now in his second year at UF’s Levin College of Law. “I finished high school in a single-mother household, working, moving into incrementally smaller apartments and struggling to pay rent.”

Those adversities turned out to be assets, he says. Brathwaite has an understanding of social unfairness not all his classmates grasp. In Venezuela, as a young boy, he’d sometimes fall asleep to echoes of gunfire. Kidnappings were so common there, schoolteachers taught their students how to recognize and avoid them. More than once, gunmen robbed family members.

As a teenager in Riverview, outside of Tampa, earning a paycheck was more important to Brathwaite than good grades. He had no father at home, and his mother, with a failing heart, was in poor health and needed his care. He stumbled toward graduation at one of the state’s worst-performing schools, Richard Spoto High, where test scores are far below average and the number of low-income students far above.

“Although I qualified for free and reduced lunches while my parents were together, I was never conscious of any economic strain until they divorced,” he says. “Then it was unavoidable. I was then aware of just how dire our situation quickly became.”

College seemed like something only a rich person would attend.
Patrick Brathwaite

Two years after high school — partly to escape the lure of falling in with the “wrong crowd” — Brathwaite enrolled at Hillsborough Community College; but only because failed multiple hearing tests kept him from enlisting in the military. His first semester there, Brathwaite took remedial classes to catch up with his classmates.

It didn’t take long to surpass them. Brathwaite quickly became an honors student. And, eventually, he received an honors scholarship. That success was motivation to transfer to UF and later apply to law school.

“I cannot remember a college degree being an actual goal of mine in high school,” he recalls. “To be honest, college just seemed like something only a rich person would attend.”

Which explains Brathwaite’s appreciation for the Dean’s Scholarship that covers half his law school tuition. Until then, he’d made it through Hillsborough Community College and UF’s undergraduate classes with student loans, a Pell grant, his Hillsborough scholarship and odd jobs: dishwasher at an Italian restaurant, gas station cashier, salesperson at Lowe’s, test center clerk.

“My mindset truly was that I would either make it or be homeless,” says Brathwaite, who earned a UF English degree in 2015. “I knew there was more I could do, and at first I didn’t know what that could be. But I knew the general advice that education was a way out of poverty, so why not at least try?”

Even so, without scholarships and loans, a college degree might have been out of reach, he admits.

“Some students make jokes we all know: being a student and eating ramen. But financial help really did mean to me … being able to eat adequate nutrition to focus in school,” Brathwaite says. “It meant I could actually focus on my academics.”

At UF Law, Brathwaite is an editor on the Florida Journal of International Law and vice president of the Latino Law Student Association. He worked his first law school summer at the national firm Carlton Fields, and eyes a career in public service. Law, he says, is an opportunity to “pay it forward.”

“I have an obligation. If I’m going to be anything, it’s going to have to be a career where I will be the [kind of] person my family and I needed, and my community needed. That’s the only way I can be genuine to who I was and to my experiences,” Brathwaite says.

“I have to practice law. There’s no other profession that can fill all these gaps.”

A Q&A with Patrick Brathwaite

What keeps you awake at night?
The most embarrassingly honest answer is probably scrolling down my Facebook timeline and liking pictures or videos of dogs doing silly things.

What gets you up in the morning?
I wanted to say the sheer fear of being late to class, but the truth is that I am somehow starving in the morning no matter how much I eat at night. … There’s also a lot to be done. I get up in the morning knowing I’m moving toward a place where I can finally do the things that align with my vision and goals. The fact that every day brings something new makes each an adventure.

Favorite John Grisham novel?
I have never read a John Grisham novel. I like reading autobiographies, biographies or history books. Generally, any nonfiction is fun to me. I should take some fiction recommendations, however. As an English major, I learned that fiction is oftentimes more honest than non-fiction.

Best Gainesville hangout?
Korean barbecue is the best thing ever. Every student needs to try it. If (Korean restaurant) Beque Holic ever sees this, I welcome their discount and will offset it by ordering fried ice cream for dessert.

Greatest thing about being a Gator?
The Gator Nation. It’s an actual thing. Everybody who comes to UF grows into an enthusiastic network. Gator lawyers have never hesitated to be there [for me], whether it was professional advice or simply grabbing lunch and talking in general. The Gator Nation is incredible.

Favorite lawyer joke?
Forgive me, but absolutely none. Well, there are some. Any Lawyer Dog memes. If you Google it you will see they are quite worthy.

By David Finnerty UF Advancement Published March 6, 2018