For nearly 30 years, Back to Iowa has been connecting Black law students and alumni to help navigate the legal profession, build community and more.
Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Before she’d even graduated from Iowa Law in 1996, Tiffany Ferguson planned to come right back to Iowa.

Not for Homecoming. Not to experience Iowa City’s nightlife without the pressures of law school. Not to enroll in another University of Iowa degree program. 

Ferguson had a different mission in mind: connecting Black alumni with Black Iowa Law students for real talk about the challenges and opportunities of entering and navigating the legal profession. 

Mission accomplished. She organized the first Back to Iowa that same year and has watched it grow into a Hawkeye institution—an annual gathering that blends educational seminars, professional networking, and happy reunions of old friends.

“When I was a law student at Iowa, there was not a lot of actual, tangible information about basic things,” said Ferguson, who is now vice president labor and employment for Allstate. “Salary, what the work was really like, career progression, all of that.” 

Headshot of Tiffany Ferguson
Tiffany Ferguson, vp labor and employment for Allstate, founded Back to Iowa in 1996.

“I felt like I was in such a vacuum of information—I knew lawyers, my mother’s best friend was a judge—but I had not watched somebody my age matriculate, go on to have a job,” Ferguson remembers. “I had not seen that. It seemed like there were just huge gaps. I needed information.”

Ferguson resolved to use her own experiences to bridge those knowledge gaps for the students behind her.

“That was the whole concept, that we would come back—now that we’d have the information—and share it with students at Iowa,” Ferguson said. She and a few fellow Iowa Law alumni piled into cars and drove back to Iowa City from their hometown of Chicago, offering to talk with any student about anything.

The Back to Iowa program has evolved ever since, becoming a highlight of the year for many alumni and students. It’s still organized by volunteers, in collaboration with the Iowa chapter of the Black Law Students Association. Law firms provide crucial financial sponsorships, and the law school contributes financial and other support; students’ travel and lodging costs are defrayed or covered. Back to Iowa usually happens in Chicago, but other cities (including Iowa City) may host as well, and alumni come from across the country.

Frank, honest discussion remains at the core of the program. Panel and roundtable discussions tackle big issues. For instance, the 2024 Back to Iowa (the event occurred February 16-17 in Chicago at the offices of Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP) featured the theme “Just Us? Connecting with our Past to Face the Future Together,” and included sessions titled, “Implicit Bias, Imposter Syndrome, and the Legal Profession,” “Demystifying Practice Area Selections,” “Navigating the Legal Space as a Black Woman/Man,” and “Show Me the Money: Partnership/Marketability/Salary.”  

In addition, the weekend’s offerings include vital career-building opportunities for students, such as resume reviews and numerous professional networking opportunities, including an evening welcome reception and lunch with the alumni. Firms see Back to Iowa as a valuable recruiting resource, and even non-Iowa-related firms participate. 

Renee Dotson, a 2007 Iowa Law graduate who is now senior vice president & deputy general counsel, business counsel for 3M, has experienced the benefits of Back to Iowa as both a student and an alumna. 

“I was a recipient of this,” Dotson said. “I attended every single year I was in law school. And I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is our role model.’ I didn’t know any African American lawyers. So I’m listening to all of these successful African American lawyers who went to Iowa, who are partners in firms, and I remember the things Tiffany said to me and the classes she told me I needed to take. I really absorbed all of that.”

Alums and a student gather around a table a the networking event Back to Iowa in Chicago in 2024.
Renee Dotson (07JD) (center) stands with Marlan Dixon (left) a JD / Master of Finance dual degree student, and Lonnie Johnson (91JD), former senior counsel at Exxon Mobile Corporation, at this year's Back to Iowa.

“Iowa was great for me,” Dotson continued. “I owe my success in part to Back to Iowa and Iowa Law School. It is who I am. I remember sitting there and thinking, ‘When I’m an adult, when I’m a real lawyer, I’m going to figure out how I can continue to do the same. And I’ve done that.” 

Dotson even negotiated for her employer to support Back to Iowa and her involvement in it. She helps recruit financial sponsors for Back to Iowa and uses the annual event as an opportunity to recruit potential summer clerks for 3M and the Twin Cities—with great success for both her employer and her recruits and mentees, who have used their clerkships and alumni connections to find their professional niches and land their first jobs. 

“I have gained so much from Back to Iowa,” Dotson said, “and I feel it is incumbent upon me as a recipient and as an alum to use whatever influence I have in my community to make sure that I am doing the same for someone else.”

Alexis Jones, a third-year Iowa Law student and president of the Iowa chapter of the Black Law Student Association (BLSA), feels the support and commitment of the Hawkeye alumni. When she’s talking with prospective law students, Back to Iowa is exhibit number one for why they should enroll at Iowa. 

“From the student side, we look forward to Back to Iowa every year,” Jones said. “Building relationships with alumni is really important. A lot of students reach out to alums they’ve met at Back to Iowa when they travel to other cities. It helps us to start connecting in the legal field and it plays a big role in starting out in whatever we’re going to do. Having the ability to hear from alums who are in Big Law, public interest, in-house, it brightens our horizons to see that ‘Hey, maybe I can do a different practice area I've never considered.’ So from a student perspective, we get maybe more out of it than the alums.”

Given the joy that Ferguson and her fellow Hawkeye alumni derive from watching Back to Iowa grow into something so important and impactful, Jones’ last assertion may be a tough sell. But one thing is clear—through their commitment to their alma mater, its students, and the legal profession, Iowa Law alumni are giving back to Iowa in powerful ways.