|From Janitor to Attorney: Mintz Lives American Dream|
Twelve years ago, Silvia Mintz came to America with little more than a dream and the desire to earn a living and support her family. She worked minimum-wage jobs as a janitor and nanny just to make ends meet. But to see her today, you would never guess she started out from such humble beginnings.
That’s because over the course of these past 12 years, Mintz has created an entirely new life for herself. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of St. Thomas, graduated from law school, passed the bar exam and co-founded her own law firm in Houston, Plake & Mintz, PLLC.
It’s an inspiring success story that is partly founded on her education and experience at the University of St. Thomas. And it’s a story that proves that with hard work and determination, anything is possible.
When Mintz came to the United States from her native Guatemala in 1997, she didn’t know English, and the only work she could find was as a janitor. It was through her first job as a nanny a year later that she began learning English, mostly by watching only English-speaking TV shows, listening to NPR radio and reading basic educational baby books that belonged to the infant she was caring for.
Her passion for learning didn’t stop there. Mintz knew she had a strong interest in political science, and at the encouragement of the family she worked for, she began taking paralegal classes at Houston Community College, initially intending to only earn an associate’s degree. Two and a half years later, in the fall of 2003, she decided to go a step further and transferred to UST to complete her bachelor’s degree, all while still working as a nanny.
It was a long and difficult journey for Mintz that involved the constant struggle of balancing work, school and being a mom. She often had to take her daughter with her to classes and the library, and she put in long hours every day to study.
“Now that I look back on it, I think, ‘How did I do that?’” Mintz said. “For me, it was like boot camp training. I was going to school full time with a full load of classes, but I also needed to make money to support my family, so I was working full time, too. I can remember a lot of nights where I was up until 3 a.m. still studying.”
That dedication certainly translated through her interaction and involvement in each of her classes, and it’s a character trait that all of her former professors remember about her. UST political science professor Dr. John Burke remembers Mintz as a very passionate, disciplined student, and one whom he considers one of his favorite students to teach.
“Silvia had a good combination of humility and intelligence,” Burke said. “Even when she came to St. Thomas, she had already achieved an enormous amount. She was always very interested in scholarly topics that I talked about in class, such as immigration law and multicultural issues. All the signs were there that she was going to have a great future. I think she’s now realizing all the potential that was so evident when I taught her.”
The transition to UST as an international student and HCC transfer student was an easy one for Mintz, she said, particularly because the small-university environment was a good fit for her, and the faculty, staff and entire UST community was very welcoming.
“The people here at St. Thomas embraced me, and that’s what I liked the most about it,” she said. “I also liked having small classes and being able to have full contact with the professors, but it was the sense of family that I liked here. It really helped that the professors embraced me.”
That sense of family is evident to this day. When Mintz recently visited the political science department on campus, even though it has been four years since she was a student, her former professors recognized and welcomed her with open arms, talking with her and catching up on the events of the past few years.
“To see these professors now, after a few years, and for them to remember me, says a lot,” she said. “It’s just like when I was a student here, I would come into their office and just talk to them about anything.”
After graduating from UST in May 2005, Mintz considered a possible career in teaching political science, but it was a conversation with her academic advisor Dr. Jon Taylor that had her considering law school.
“When I graduated, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I was considering getting a teaching certificate. I knew I had to get a job, so I asked Dr. Taylor what I could do. He said, ‘Have you thought about being a lawyer?’ And I was surprised. I thought the idea was crazy at first. But we talked about it and he told me I should take the LSAT test, but I didn’t even know what that was,” she said with a laugh.
Soon, the family Mintz had worked for as a nanny encouraged her to pursue law school, and they even paid for her LSAT prep classes. She later took the test and began attending the South Texas School of Law, where she graduated in May 2008. About a month later, she and classmate Daniel Plake opened up their own firm, Plake & Mintz Law. Now, the family that encouraged her studies and supported her for the past several years is one of her firm’s clients.
Mintz has come a long way in 10 years, from working as a janitor at $4.75 an hour to now working as a lawyer and co-owner of her own firm. In another 10 years, Mintz said she hopes to see her law firm grow, and she would like to spend more time doing pro bono work for immigration cases to help those who are in the same situation that she once was.
That kind of compassion and desire to continue helping others is evident through all of her volunteer work and continued efforts to fight for others dealing with cultural and immigration issues.
“I don’t think she’s lost touch with where she came from,” Burke said. “She’s not the type of person who climbs the ladder, gets to the top and then pulls the ladder away. She’s someone who will climb back down, reach out her hand and help others.”
Having started at the bottom and worked her way to the top, Mintz can relate to those who are struggling, and she wants nothing more than to be that helping hand.
“I enjoy doing immigration work because I want to help those people who don’t have a voice,” Mintz said. “I was there once, so I know what it’s like. I want to be the voice for those people who aren’t heard.”