When Gina McKlveen transferred to Saint Vincent College as a sophomore in 2015, she arrived with a plan.
An English major, she was determined to pick up a second major, graduate in fewer than three years and gain acceptance into a top-notch law school.
Check, check and check.
A little more than five years later, she holds bachelor’s degrees from SVC in both English and Studio Art (graduating summa cum laude), a Juris Doctor degree from the George Washington University Law School and was selected for the 2021 Outstanding Law Student Award by the National Association of Women Lawyers. Through a sometimes-difficult journey through law school, McKlveen leaned on the liberal arts foundation that she received during her undergraduate years at SVC.
“I relied on my writing ability to effectively articulate arguments,” she said, “and my study of literary theories in novels to critically analyze legal principles all came from my English background. My Studio Art background helps me to see people, to see the whole picture or case, and see the human in front of me, who is my client, holistically, allowing me to represent them to the best of my ability.”
While her journey was completed by becoming an award-winning law school graduate, it began with uncertainty, as the Stahlstown, Pennsylvania, native found herself at a crossroads after spending an unpleasant first semester as a freshman at another institution.
“When you’re young and growing up, sometimes you just want to leave home and get away from everything,” she said. “I ended up doing that, but experienced some unexpected challenges my first semester so I withdrew and, several months later, enrolled in Westmoreland County Community College to get back on my feet.”
Growing up in the footprint of Saint Vincent College, McKlveen was always well-aware of the college’s presence in the region, regularly visiting campus for events throughout her childhood. She had never seriously thought about enrolling in the College until she began pondering her next steps in her educational journey when her parents urged her to consider attending her hometown school.
“It’s close to home, practically right in the backyard,” she said, “so I always just thought, ‘it’s just Saint Vincent.’”
McKlveen eventually relented and enrolled as an English major for the fall 2015 semester. She began the semester by meeting with her new adviser, Dr. Dennis McDaniel, and her opinion of her new school immediately changed.
“I sat down in his office and told him my goals of double majoring, graduating early and attending law school,” she recalled. “He told me about one of his former students who had just gotten accepted into several top-notch law schools, including Georgetown. I always had my eye on moving to Washington, D.C., and thought to myself, ‘Wow, someone from SVC can get into a law school in D.C.?’ Dr. McDaniel then walked me through how I could do it – double major, graduate early – it was exactly what I was looking for and more. The way that he and SVC welcomed me in as a transfer student and instantly made me feel at home is such a testament to the College itself.”
“Once I got there, it was the best experience I could have ever asked for.”
Chair of the SVC English Department, McDaniel fondly recalls this initial meeting and had little doubt that McKlveen would succeed in achieving her goals.
“Gina is one of the most focused, driven students that I have had the pleasure of working with,” he said. “From the beginning of her attendance at Saint Vincent, she pursued her lofty goals energetically and without compromise. Having transferred to Saint Vincent with about 20 credits from community college, Gina came to my office and outlined her journey. I was skeptical only for a moment because she announced her plan with such conviction and precision that she made me a believer, and we worked on creating a curriculum through which she could realize her aims.”
Her meeting with McDaniel quickly erased any hesitancy McKlveen had about choosing Saint Vincent and she quickly immersed herself in her studies, noting that a pair of courses early on in her SVC tenure left a big impact.
“In Dr. (William) Snyder’s Intermediate Writing I class,” she said, “we did a project he called ‘The Recovery Project,’ in which we uncovered women writers from the past who were very prominent in previous centuries, but their works had essentially been forgotten in modern-day. The whole essence of the project was looking back in history to see how women were involved in the world and community at the time. I researched an 18th-century writer in England who was a key player in overturning coverture law, an antiquated legal principle that stated that everything that a woman owned actually belonged to her husband if married, or her father if unmarried. With its overturning, women could actually own property and enter into contracts, two fundamental rights that women enjoy today.
“A second class,” she continued, “was taught by Dr. Sara Lindey and covered 18th-century sentimental fiction. We studied women authors who wrote novels on the experiences of women. They’d tell stories about a lot of unpleasant experiences, like sexual assault in prior centuries. It resonated with me personally and helped me in formulating my senior thesis.”
Like her colleague McDaniel, Lindey was also quite impressed with McKlveen and is not surprised by her protégé’s success.
“Gina always asked important, genuine questions brimming with insight,” recalled Lindey. “I could always count on her to move our conversations forward. Gina’s writing was excellent and it was a pleasure to grade her papers.”
McKlveen continued to excel in her English education at SVC, which would resonate even more when she was afforded the opportunity to study abroad in England.
“I never thought I could study abroad at Saint Vincent given my transfer status and my goal of graduating a year early,” she said, “but when I saw the flyer in the post office, I went back to Dr. McDaniel to see if it was possible. Then, there I was, a rural, teenage girl who had only been on an airplane once before, now flying over the ocean and visiting such a vibrant, multicultural city. After completing The Recovery Project and studying sentimental fiction, traveling to London, walking the same streets and seeing first-hand what these women had seen and how everything had changed was incredible.”
“It was such a cool experience that literally could not have happened without Saint Vincent.”
Majoring in English, McKlveen was able to hone her writing and research skills in preparation for law school. Her Studio Art major, however, was equally beneficial in helping her on her path beyond Saint Vincent, while it also allowed her the opportunity to learn under one of her biggest mentors, Br. Mark Floreanini, O.S.B., associate professor of art.
“I had the great privilege of being a student of Br. Mark’s,” she said, “and I was able to display some of my work during the senior exhibition alongside other Studio Art majors. That’s what inspired the area of law I hope to get into, art law. It was very much an exploration for me, seeing how art and law go hand-in-hand. That’s something I hope to bring about in my legal practice - how important it is to have legal representation, that creators know their legal rights, to know how to protect their works from infringement and to know how not to infringe on the creative works of others.”
Along with her two major concentrations, McKlveen also took a number of courses offered by the Theology Department, mentioning classes taught by Dr. Christopher McMahon and Dr. Catherine Petrany as standing out in teaching the unique and important role of women in the Bible.
“I was raised non-denominational Christian,” said McKlveen, “and in the churches I was raised in, all of the leadership positions were held only by men. Early on as a kid, you don’t question this, but as you become more aware, you ask yourself, ‘Why can’t Mom speak in the church?’ In Dr. McMahon’s First Theology class, we walked through Genesis and he showed us what Eve’s role was to Adam – she was a helper and there was the intimacy of her being formed out of him. It was incredibly restorative for my faith.
“Dr. Petrany’s course covered the women of the Old Testament,” she continued. “That was the first time I read in great detail about women in the Bible. They did such amazing, powerful things. I wrote several papers in that class that really explored a lot of the difficult and traumatic experiences for women in the Bible. It is a book of trauma, but also a book of redemption. SVC is specially equipped for teaching those tough subjects. I still find myself constantly exploring the women of the Bible.”
As her time at Saint Vincent wound down and McKlveen ramped up her law school search, she happened upon the video of the College’s 2011 spring commencement address by Bruce Antkowiak, longtime attorney and currently the head legal counsel at Saint Vincent College and chair of the school’s Criminology Department.
“It was so powerful,” she said. “I still watch it regularly. I was blown away, hearing his words of focusing on future generations and instilling in them a sense and meaning of home.”
Learning about Antkowiak’s legal background, McKlveen promptly sought him out for guidance in her law school search.
“I never had him for a class,” she said, “but he has helped me out tremendously. He helped me decide which schools to apply to and told me which schools would be a good fit. Bruce is such a role model to me.”
After achieving her goal of graduating from Saint Vincent in less than three years, McKlveen was accepted and enrolled into George Washington University Law School, which is regularly ranked among the top 30 law schools in the U.S. and annually accepts fewer than 40 percent of its applicants. As she entered GW, she knew that it would be a difficult experience, but felt prepared thanks to her SVC background.
“It’s hard for anyone to really truly prepare for that environment,” she said. “I chose George Washington because I wanted to get knocked off my feet. At Saint Vincent, I was comfortable. I knew that it was safe and I knew that I would do well academically, as I did throughout high school. Law school was the first time that I got Cs, and I had to come to terms with that. So much of legal education is dependent on letter grades or grade point averages, with one exam determining your grade for an entire semester. And yet, I relied on my writing ability to effectively articulate arguments, my close reading skills to question the text of statutes and case law and my study of literary theories in novels to critically analyze legal principles. All of that came from my English background.”
McKlveen felt that her Studio Art background prepared her just as much to enter the legal profession as did her English education.
“My art background helps me to actually see people,” she said, “and I wrote that on every single law school application. Just seeing the person in front of you from multiple perspectives – that art training helped equip me so much. If I am a defense attorney, I have to look at the case and look at my client from the prosecution’s point of view and the jury’s point of view. That art training, seeing subjects from various viewpoints, helped equip me so much for the legal profession. As an artist, I’m not always drawing the face value of something. I’m looking at different angles and that’s the approach I take with the law, as well. Try to see the whole picture or case, and see the human in front of me, who is my client, holistically.”
Antkowiak lauded McKlveen’s approach, calling it a great lesson for students who plan to study law.
“She did not, in any way, shape, or form, want to abandon her passions in English and art during her study of law,” he said. “I told her that people who abandon their love of disciplines like that in order to go to law school make a huge mistake. The best lawyers, the ones who use the law for its noblest purposes, are those who integrate their understanding of the legal system with their broader understanding of the topics that so affect people’s lives. It’s the reason why a liberal arts education is so critical for people who go into law.
“She was deeply passionate in the arts,” continued Antkowiak, “and deeply interested in those aspects of the law that would affect those things about which she has this great passion. For that reason, I’m not at all surprised that she has flourished as well as she has. She will continue to bring a dimension and perspective to her practice that others simply would not. Hers is a great lesson for other people going to law school. Remain true to the full dimensions of the passions you have as a student in all aspects.”
McKlveen was also able to showcase her art talents during her final year at George Washington. Spending countless hours in the school’s library, she would often find herself gazing at the surrounding walls and the paintings that adorned them.
“I’d look up from my books at the paintings on the wall, and they were all portraits of men,” she said. “I’m here, and that’s great, but I know other women came before me. Where are they? Why aren’t I seeing them on these prestigious walls of this prestigious university?”
She set out to paint portraits of the school’s female trailblazers, entitling the project “NINE: Portraits of Women in the Law” as an homage to the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who, when asked when there will be enough women on the Supreme Court, replied, “When there are nine.” McKlveen’s project debuted on March 15, 2021, on what would have been Bader Ginsburg’s 88th birthday.
“I ended up painting eight of the nine portraits myself,” said McKlveen. “I learned a lot about so many of the extraordinary stories of women who had gone through GW Law. It was really eye-opening learning how much tougher those women had it back then.”
While her journey through law school was anything but easy, it also contained its share of highlights. In addition to McKlveen’s art exhibition, she also was able to travel to Israel and Palestine with the school’s Jewish Law Student Association and was elected president of George Washington’s Law Association for Women. In this role, she was invited to attend an event at the Library of Congress honoring one of her biggest role models, Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court.
“Several justices were in attendance. It was the second time I got to see Justice Ginsburg before she passed. Justice O’Connor’s sons spoke on her behalf, and Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Sonia Sotomayor were both there. Being in that environment, it was like, ‘Wow, now this really is D.C.!’"
With her law school graduation quickly approaching, McKlveen experienced one more major highlight, as she learned she had been nominated for and selected to receive the 2021 Outstanding Law Student Award by the National Association of Women Lawyers.
“I was immensely grateful to learn that I had been nominated by one of my male professors because it showed me how much progress can be made when we support one another. Earning the award is great and I’m honored to receive it. Women of previous centuries would have loved to have seen and experienced a moment like this. It isn’t lost on me that just 100 years ago, women were still fighting for the right to vote. Seeing the progress that women have made, and being able to be awarded for something that women had to fight for in the past, was immensely humbling.”
With both this prestigious award and her law degree in tow, McKlveen is now focused on the road ahead. As she preps for the Pennsylvania Bar Exam in early 2022, she has applied to American University’s Washington College of Law’s Master of Law program, in which she plans to focus on copyright and intellectual property law.
“The interesting thing about American University’s Law School,” she said, “is that it was founded by two women who were denied admission to George Washington University Law School.”
For those Saint Vincent students who may plan to follow a similar path from Saint Vincent through law school, McKlveen offers advice.
“I was very much the shy student, so it’s ok to be quiet, but know that you have a voice as well,” she said. “Your contributions matter. There are many ways to express yourself. I may have a hard time speaking publicly sometimes, but I’m able to express myself through art. It’s ok to not follow the crowd. I’m constantly rooting for the quiet kids and one of the things I loved about Saint Vincent is that it is accessible to all students.
“Keep a heart for justice. Speak up. Say things. Express yourself and have faith.”
PHOTO (by Gina McKlveen, C’17): Gina McKlveen poses with her collection of portraits from the exhibit “NINE: Portraits of Women in the Law.”