Danielle Conway was 8 years old when she first heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on a Fisher Price record player in her bedroom.
Conway, who grew up in Philadelphia as one of four children raised by a single mom, assumed King was a lawyer and soon equated his dream with a career in law.
“It was at that moment I communicated with my mother about my desire to become a lawyer,” she said.
“In fact, what I can only describe now as the tenor, conviction and command of language used by Dr. King made me assume he was a lawyer. Looking back, at 8 years old, I am not too embarrassed by my faulty assumption,” she said.
After garnering decades of experience in the field of law, she has returned to her home state to embody King’s dream by serving as the first African-American female dean at Penn State’s Dickinson Law School. The decision to hire Conway was made after a national search, and her appointment is effective July 1.
Conway is thrilled to return home to her roots in Pennsylvania.
“This was where it all happened,” she said.
Her mother, Gwendolyn Conway, was supportive of her daughter’s career aspiration. In fact, she was so inspired by her daughter’s dream that she not only supported her daughter in a traditional way, but decided she would lead by example and pursue her own career in law.
Thus, Gwendolyn Conway began attending classes at Temple Law School at night while working full-time as an accountant and tax manager for the city by day.
“My mother was and remains a force. I never felt as though I was raised by a single parent. I always had her attention, and I always had her intrepid spirit as my guide on how to live, love and work,” she said.
While she attended high school, Danielle Conway learned about the law school experience firsthand from her mother, and after she watched her mother graduate, she knew she wanted to follow in her footsteps.
“She’s who I want to be,” she said.
However, her mother experienced a significant hurdle when she attempted to study and pass her bar examination, hold down her full-time job and care for her children.
Danielle Conway said her mother knew she had to focus on passing the bar examination on the first try, so she asked her supervisor to approve leave for eight weeks. Her supervisor denied her leave request and told her that if she took sick leave, he would terminate her employment.
“Instead of fighting for her position that summer, my mother made the choice to apply for public assistance in order to pay her bills and take care of her family while studying for the bar,” she said.
Danielle Conway said that watching her mother sacrifice her beliefs about dignity and humbly accept public assistance for the benefit of herself and her family gave her a greater sense of awareness and empathy for the plight of people who are disadvantaged in various ways. This is why she would eventually become an advocate for public education, as well as legal rights for indigenous people and minority groups. She said that if her mother hadn’t received public assistance, her future contributions to the community would have been lost.
“My mother passed the bar on the first try and represented herself in getting her pension benefits reinstated. She became an effective lawyer and municipal court judge in Philadelphia,” she said.
Danielle Conway went on to study finance and international business at New York University on a U.S. Army Reserve officers training corps scholarship, and later earned degrees from George Washington University Law School and the Howard University School of Law.
She began her career in legal education as a member of the faculty at the Georgetown University Law Center in 1996, later joining the faculty of the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law in 1998 and the University of Hawaii in 2000.
In 2015, she became the first African-American dean and professor of law at the University of Maine School of Law.
In 2018, Dickinson Law School began its search for a new dean and Danielle Conway was a clear front runner, according to Rebekah Saidman-Krauss, assistant dean for admissions and financial aid, who served on the search committee.
“Not only was Dean Conway one of the most qualified candidates on paper, her energy and magnetism were palpable throughout the interview process,” Saidman-Krauss said.
“I had the privilege of connecting with her a few years ago at a conference on diversity and inclusion, and I am excited for the fresh perspective that Dean Conway will bring to Penn State’s Dickinson Law as a woman of color,” she said.
As for Conway, she considers Dickinson Law School to be a national leader among law schools, and she looks forward to passing on to a new group of students her expertise in intellectual property law, internet law and government contract law.
“I consider this an opportunity to be a leader among leaders in promoting the rule of law, stewarding our constitutional democracy and creating concrete graduate and professional law school pathways for our students,” she said.