Of the most devastating stories you’ll hear about a child’s upbringing, La’Kendra Deitche, B.A. ’21, might have experienced one of the worst—and overcome it.
With the help of non-family members who never gave up on her or allowed her to give up on herself, her story is a testimony of perseverance and faith.
Born in southern Indiana to what she describes as an abusive mother and a largely absent father who spent considerable time in jail, Deitche also suffered epileptic seizures. Child protective services ignored her situation, calling her a juvenile delinquent. Her mother terminated parental rights when her daughter was 13, and officials dropped the teenager at her father’s front door without going inside the home.
In essence, she was saved by South Side High School teachers like Marianne and Joseph Deitche, Renee Albright, Kim Roebuck, Beth Sanchez, Christine Koehrn, and Trina Riley who listened and encouraged the youngster as no one ever had. When she graduated in 2011, La’Kendra attended Indiana University as a lost first-generation student who had no understanding of how college worked or what she was supposed to do after arriving on campus.
The Deitches kept in contact and helped out, even sending a box of winter clothing. During spring break of her freshman year, they invited La’Kendra to move in with them for the summer. After she flunked out during her second year, she moved in full-time with the family.
With encouragement from the Deitches, La’Kendra enrolled at Ivy Tech for a semester and then studied at Purdue University Fort Wayne before flunking out again. She returned to Ivy Tech and earned an associate degree before giving it another try as a Mastodon.
She planned to study criminal justice, but an advisor gave her no encouragement and said she would have to start her college academics over. Then she walked into the Liberal Arts Building to ask about another potential major, meeting with Michael Wolf, the current chairman of the Department of Political Science.
“I said, ‘I think I want to do political science, but I don’t think I’m smart enough,’” La’Kendra recalled. “He sat me down and said, ‘It’s going to be hard, but you can do it.’”
That same day, La’Kendra met associate professors James Toole and Georgia Ulmschneider and told them her ultimate goal was to attend law school. They said that was possible.
“It’s just amazing the support I got, just what I needed to keep going,” said La’Kendra, also mentioning administrative assistant Teri Luce and Nancy Virtue, her Spanish professor. “It made me want to work really hard for them and keep going. Even when I wanted to quit and give up, I didn’t want to disappoint them. I wanted to make them proud.”
La’Kendra graduated in 2021, earning a spot on PFW’s Exemplar and Top 50 student lists. There were various struggles—including challenging therapy—but also rewards and honors along the way. A high point came when she was formally adopted by the Deitches at age 26.
South Side teachers saved her life, and PFW professors helped her find a future. The mentors kept encouraging, with Ulmschneider pushing La’Kendra to attend IU’s Maurer School of Law. After previous experiences in Bloomington, she had to be convinced.
“It was so bad, why would I want to go back there again?” La’Kendra said. “I finally adopted the attitude of, ‘I’m going to be amazing and prove it to everyone, and people will say they shouldn’t have doubted me.’”
She still keeps in touch with those who believed in her, and Wolf shared with members of the PFW university community an update in December congratulating La’Kendra for receiving a prestigious Karen Hastie Leadership Fellowship awarded by the District of Columbia Bar. She was the only one of eight students selected from outside the immediate Washington area.
La’Kendra also recently received another offer for an internship with the New York Legal Aid Society. She’ll spend the summer in New York and the fall in Washington.
Everything that has happened seems unreal in some ways and is hard for La’Kendra to talk about, almost as if it could disappear if examined too closely. Instead, she focuses on moving forward and graduating. And she fully understands the only way to pay back everyone’s help is by paying it forward, saying there’s nothing more she can do than be there for others.
“People have poured so much into me, and I’m trying to do my best to not disappoint them,” La’Kendra said. “It’s also what I expect of myself.
“There are plenty of people like me who could do amazing things and who are much smarter than me, but they don’t have the lifeline, the support. When people read my story, don’t just write kids off because they may present or act in a certain way. Everybody has potential.”