Donna Sandacz’s first year of law school at Northern Illinois University almost proved disastrous.
Her daughter, Shaina Kalanges, suffered serious injuries in a bad automobile accident while an undergraduate student at University of Illinois.
“I ended up having to miss two weeks of law school – which could have been catastrophic –because I was with Shaina in the hospital,” Sandacz said. “The faculty, the dean – they worked with me, and they were wonderful. Instead of having to drop out, I was able to finish that first year even though I was helping her out recovering from her accident.”
That spirit of community made a strong impression, not only on mother but daughter.
Shaina later enrolled at the NIU College of Law – already a known entity, thanks to her mom – and when she graduated this spring, it was Sandacz who had the honor of hooding her in front of the whole family.
“It was an amazing experience. I was really excited and so proud of Shaina. She has worked so hard throughout her whole career, and she has done so well,” said Sandacz, who graduated from NIU Law in 2011 and now has her own estate planning practice. “To be able to be a part of it was wonderful. I can’t even express the words. It was the best.”
The family affair goes further: Sandacz’s time on the DeKalb campus also overlaps with that of her son, Ian Kalanges, who attended NIU as both an undergraduate and graduate student.
“It is great to be here today and to celebrate her accomplishment as a family, and of what they have both done in the past six years,” Ian said of his sister and mother at the ceremony.
Even though they took different paths, the support of family has spelled success for mother and daughter.
Sandacz, who returned to law school later in life while Ian was at NIU and Shaina at the University of Illinois, said NIU was a great fit for her.
“Being a return student at my age, and with both of my kids in college at the time, they were flexible,” Sandacz said of the NIU Law faculty. “You get a top education here, but at the same time all of the professors, the deans, everybody has a great community atmosphere, and they work with you.”
“It was kind of unique to go to school with my mom,” added Ian, general manager of the NIU hockey team. “She was in law school, and I was an undergrad, and then in grad school. I was living out here full time, and she commuted from our hometown of Lake in the Hills.”
Ian bumped into his mother quite often when he was studying sport management as an undergraduate.
“I would actually see my mom on campus and sometimes pretend that I didn’t know her and take off running in the other direction,” he said, jokingly. “It was great that she was able to juggle the family life along with going to law school, which is a huge challenge, but she had a great support system in place with the whole family.”
That support extended to her NIU Law family as well. “It’s not fair to single out any one person,” Sandacz said, “because every one of them is just spectacular.”
Shaina, who believes that NIU Law is underrated, is willing to name names.
“I think this school deserves more recognition than it gets. I think the professors are amazing. Professor (David) Taylor has been amazing to me, and the new professors that come in are amazing, like professors Amy Widman and Michael Oswalt to name a few,” Shaina said, noting that Associate Professor Robert Jones had a role in developing both mother and daughter into lawyers.
“I loved working with Donna and Shaina. They are both insightful, bright, conscientious and personable,” Jones confirmed. “They have different personalities, so I’m not sure I would have guessed they were mother and daughter had I not actually known. Each of them is a credit to the university, and I feel very lucky to have been able to work with them both.”
“I have been teaching law for 25 years, and Shaina stands out among a very small handful of the brightest students I have had the pleasure to teach,” added Taylor, an NIU Distinguished Teaching Professor. “She is not an observer; she is a participant in whatever she does. She has thrown herself into the study of law and achieved great academic success, and she will do the same thing in practice.”
After finishing as one of only three top honored summa cum laude graduates in her class and receiving an award for her achievement in Constitutional Law studies, Shaina is preparing for the Illinois Bar. Afterward, she will finish co-reporting for the Illinois State Bar Association’s Special Committee on the Impact of Law School Curriculum and Student Debt.
Shaina knows she has been well prepared for future success and has made lasting connections during her time at NIU, many of whom are cited in the acknowledgments section of her student comment published in the NIU Law Review Volume 34-3 issue.
“Everyone here has been so friendly,” she said. “Even though it is a competitive school, we’re still very helpful to each other. I feel like the faculty and colleagues that I bonded with are going to be with me the rest of my life, and I know that they support me. I guarantee every alumnus working on complex research keeps Professor Therese Arado Clarke at the top of their contacts list. And we know that Greg Anderson is keeping a watchful eye over us in addition to being a favored alumni event host. NIU Law’s notably high post-graduate employment rate proves that much.”
She also credits her encouraging family as well as the good role model she found in her mother: “And I got her old study guides and books,” she said with a laugh.
“I lived the experience,” Sandacz said. “I knew what she was going through. I understood that she had to sacrifice time with family and make a lot of sacrifices to succeed.”