As a kid, Heriberto (Eddie) Ponce didn’t think much about attending a four-year college, let alone law school. He grew up in Hawaiian Gardens—the smallest city in L.A. County—in a neighborhood he said, “lacked many prospects or role models in higher education.”
But when Eddie received a top score on a placement exam, it landed him admission to Whitney High School—a Blue Ribbon School, ranked #1 in California and 14th nationally.
From there, his life trajectory changed.
Eddie, the son of two hard-working immigrants, always knew the value of hard work. He started working at the age of 15 at a local McDonald’s and continued to work there until he was 18. But as talks of college were starting at his high school, he began to think about what was possible for his future. He realized, “Oh, it’s expected of me to go to college and do more, not just graduate high school.”
With private institutions costing upwards of $60,000 a year, Eddie decided to stay local to complete his undergraduate degree. He attended California State University, Fullerton and, given an early interest in law, he majored in Criminal Justice.
There were several reasons he was interested in studying the law, but one very personal experience stuck out most for Eddie. Here, he tells his story.
So, I’ll share probably one of the most horrendous experiences of my life, which also strengthened my resolve to [become a lawyer]. My friend was wrongfully accused of attempted murder. I know you’re probably gasping right now, but fear not, everything miraculously turned out ok. This experience had a profound effect on me, more so than even my friend probably realizes. I remember getting the news, that he had turned himself in to the local sheriff’s station and thinking to myself who could be so stupid as to believe that the single most sincere and kind individual would be capable of this. I remember thinking, this would all get sorted out quickly, and that he would be back home soon, but that wasn’t the case. I think he spent about three months behind bars. I know this may not seem like a long time, but to us and I’m sure to him, it felt like an eternity. During this time, though I wrote to him, visited him, and even attended some of his court hearings, I’ll never forget feeling so powerless. See, I didn’t understand what was going on, I didn’t understand why they weren’t letting him go, I didn’t understand the court process in general, and honestly neither did many of his loved ones. All we knew was that he was innocent. Thankfully, after word spread of his arrest, our entire city banded together and helped fundraise some money so his mother could afford a private lawyer, and after a while his case was finally dismissed. I remember getting the call when he was actually released. I drove, admittedly like a maniac to him, and when I finally saw him, I ran to him and hugged him. His experience made me realize, that people like me are needed to help prevent situations like his from happening again.
Life wasn’t automatically easier in college. Eddie worked a lot, leaving little time or energy to pursue internships.
He felt fortunate to eventually connect with a mentor at Cal State Fullerton. She told him he had the ability to go beyond college and that he would make a phenomenal lawyer. He started an independent study with her, researching homelessness, and from then on, he focused his efforts, setting the course to graduate Cum Laude in 2017.
During his senior year in college, he took on his first and only internship. One that would leave a lasting impact.
He interned with a private defense attorney who also had an immigration practice. Eddie said it was an invaluable experience for him, “not because of the ‘legal’ work, but because the attorney talked to me about his experiences as a lawyer and what to expect in law school. As a first-generation college student, I didn’t have access to anyone who could provide this type of advice to me.”
When Eddie received notice that he was accepted to the University of Iowa College of Law Eddie was working as an internet sales manager for a major car dealership after college with a friend, making more money than he thought possible. He opened the email and asked his friend what he thought. It was tempting for Eddie to stay in sales, but his friend said, “This is your dream. Why stay here?” Eddie quickly knew his next step.
When asked about his favorite memory at Iowa Law so far, Eddie said “Stepping into the Boyd Law Building for the first time. I never imagined a boy from my background would get so far.”
He stepped into law school with purpose and passion.
In his second year, Eddie and a handful of Iowa Law students, took it upon themselves to establish the First-Generation Professionals @ Iowa Law (FGP) student organization. Through their persistence and help from faculty such as Professor Schweer and Professor Yockey, the students were able to get FGP off the ground in 2019. Eddie said, “When the organization was finally established, it felt amazing. Knowing that I, along with other amazing students, left a powerful mark on Iowa law. A mark that would be used to help others like me succeed.”
Eddie is also co-president of the Hispanic/Latinx Law Student Association (HLLSA), and passionate about building a sense of community for students of color and for increasing diversity. He is thrilled to lead the group and work to increase the academic success of its members and promote diversity within the Iowa Law community, and more broadly across the legal profession.
Outside of his studies and leadership in student organizations, Eddie has also dedicated his time to help others through multiple legal clinics at the law school. Work that Eddie says has made his legal education “real.” Currently he is working in the Immigration Clinic with Professor Elias, but has also worked with the Law and Policy in Action Clinic with Professor Sandler. Eddie shared a simple but powerful experience he had with a client during his time with the clinic:
During law school we read hundreds of cases. Cases about criminal law, tort law, property law, and the list goes on, but I feel we [the students] get so caught up in the academic portion of law school, we forget to take a step back and realize that, that case is the story of someone’s struggle, and when I began working at the clinic that really came through full force. I’ll always remember a certain moment during my time with the clinic. A rather short conversation I had with one of my clients, where we both shared a laugh after we discussed some difficult situations, and how we’ve adjusted to living in Iowa. A state that was foreign to both of us, but at the same time the place we currently called home. When we shared that laugh at that moment, I thought to myself, I hope I never forget this feeling, because it was then that it really hit me, my client’s story wasn’t just a case, it was his lived experience, and I will forever be grateful to him for allowing me to be a footnote in his amazing journey to the U.S.
Though Eddie’s journey into law has taken many twists and turns, and at times things could have gone in another direction, he is steadfast in his belief that he is on the right path, doing exactly what he should be doing, and he’s grateful for all those who have guided him throughout his journey.
“I am thankful to everyone who has supported me in my journey to get here. From my parents, who provided all the moral support and financial support they could, to my wife and mentors who pushed me to become the best advocate I could be. They allowed a young man from an impoverished neighborhood to live out his dream,” Eddie said.
“Every step he takes in life is about leadership. I’m proud Eddie shared his story so that it could inspire others to follow their dreams,” shared Iowa Law professor Lorie Reins-Schweer.
Eddie completed his second externship with the Riverside District Attorney’s Office last summer, helping solidify his future direction. He has accepted a post-graduate offer with the Riverside DA’s office, and after law school plans to return to Southern California to start his career as an attorney. He looks forward to being of service to his community and hopes to run for political office one day.
At the close of his interview, Eddie left me with words his father once told him, “Your accomplishment will always be yours, but the joy will always be ours.”