Zachary Wells is in an elite group. The University of Louisiana at Lafayette senior is among just 16 percent of applicants accepted into Columbia Law School’s fall class. The New York City institution is ranked in the nation’s top 5 for law studies.
But the road from Wells’ hometown of Breaux Bridge to the home of the Brooklyn Bridge runs first through the Cajundome.
That's where, at Spring Commencement on Friday, he simultaneously marked two achievements. At the moment he received his bachelor’s degree in accounting, Wells also became the first person in his family to graduate from college.
“I realize how lucky I am,” Wells said. “I am very thankful. This is definitely not just me. It’s teachers and professors believing in me, working hard to see me through. It’s my parents pushing me toward it, constantly reminding me that education is the most important thing you can do. It opens doors that wouldn’t be open.
“I am extremely, acutely aware that it wasn’t just me.”
UL Lafayette defines a first-generation student as one whose parents did not pursue or did not complete a degree program. Like Wells, a quarter of the Spring 2019 graduating class qualifies for the designation.
Neither of Wells’ parents completed high school. His dad was a commercial painter and laborer before becoming a pastor. His mom is a homemaker. Wells said his parents worked hard, so he emulated their examples.
He balanced a rigorous study schedule with off-campus employment — first as a bank teller, then as a runner for a local accounting firm. Earlier this year, he secured an internship in the Lafayette office of Postlethwaite & Netterville.
Thirty hours of prep time for accounting exams weren’t uncommon, Wells recounted. “I would start studying the week before. Do my flashcards and then run through them. I’d read the book and outline it. Make flashcards from the book. Make flashcards from my notes from the lecture.”
But even a wall of flashcards couldn’t ensure a flawless transcript. He earned a solitary B — in an upper-level accounting course, no less. The B stung, he said. “I worked especially hard in that class,” Wells recounted. “Oh, well.” He still maintained a 3.97 GPA.
Positivity is among Wells’ most-notable traits, said Chase Edwards, an attorney and assistant professor of law in the B.I. Moody III College of Business Administration. Wells took several courses with Edwards, but the two are connected in another way.
Like Wells, Edwards was the first in his family to go to college. He remembers facing common roadblocks confronted by first-generation students, including self-doubt and an unawareness of resources designed to help him succeed.
“I was that typical first-generation student who didn’t know how to reach out to faculty, so I didn’t really make any connections. Consequently, I missed out on having a mentor, but that’s exactly the reason I proactively reach out to first-gens in my classroom.”
Edwards didn’t have to reach out to Wells. The student came to him. Then a sophomore, Wells approached Edwards following class one day to discuss a journal article the assistant professor had written. Wells had read the 35,000-word piece, and wanted to talk about it.
As the conversation progressed, Edwards asked Wells what he wanted to do after graduation. Wells answered he was considering law school.
Soon, Edwards brought Wells a second-hand Law School Admissions Test study guide. It is similar to the one he used when he prepared for the LSAT. Over the course of his teaching career, Edwards has purchased more than two dozen copies for students who say they want to pursue a law degree.
“A lot of times, whenever I’ll buy one of these books for someone, it may be the only time that anybody literally buys into their success. A lot of times, it makes a world of difference for them,” Edwards said.
“There’s never been anybody I bought that book for who gave up after that.”
Wells certainly didn’t. Edwards would see him between classes, sitting in the second-floor atrium in Moody Hall, poring over the guide.
“He studied, studied, studied. I usually tell someone to expect to take the LSAT twice, but his score came back astronomically high.” The highest possible result is 180; the median for first-time test takers is 150. Wells scored 171, “which is just nuts,” Edwards said.
The results placed him in the exam’s 98th percentile. Initially, Wells had considered law schools within Louisiana. But his score broadened his options. “The world was now his oyster,” Edwards said.
Wells applied to the law schools at Yale, Harvard, Stanford, New York and Columbia universities and the University of Chicago, the top 6 schools to study tax law, his intended field.
In early April, he received an acceptance email from Columbia. He read it once, then again. He recalled thinking: “Did that just happen?” He checked the email a third time.
Wells called his parents. “They were dumbfounded. This is an Ivy League law school!”
Wells left the next day for Columbia’s admitted students orientation. When he returned to Lafayette, he had made two decisions.
The first was sartorial. He needed a suit. Edwards took him shopping. They chose a versatile blue one, and a number of shirts and tie combinations to match.
Second, after hearing a speaker at the conference discuss human rights, Wells decided that was the avenue for him rather than tax law. He was interested in such causes before, but the panel convinced him that he “could do more for the world” by litigating human rights issues, he said.
Edwards’ wasn’t surprised when Wells told him of his new intended path. “He’s the guy you know is always going to make the right decisions. He’s just a solid person. If my two sons grow up to be like him, I’ll be proud as hell.
“Zach is the clearest proof that I’ve seen that grit and determination can still take you all the way to the top of the ladder.”