Sarah Graham was an honor roll student in her Indianapolis high school. But when she started attending Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington, she struggled academically and socially.
“I didn’t really fit in that big environment.”
Graham decided to enroll in the Ivy Tech Legal and Paralegal Studies program. At first, she tried out the Bloomington campus, but then she decided to come back home and transfer to the Indianapolis campus.
“I figured that if I went to Ivy Tech and had a smaller class size and a more intimate learning environment, I would probably do better,” Graham said.
By taking a step back to evaluate and determine what she needed for success, there was no doubt about it: Graham made the right decision and, without a doubt, did do better.
“Going to school was finally fun and enjoyable again,” Graham said, describing what it was like once she enrolled in Ivy Tech Indianapolis’ Legal and Paralegal Studies program. “I lost my academic confidence at IU Bloomington. But I gained it back when I came to [Ivy Tech] Indy.”
Playing a significant role in helping Graham gain her academic confidence back was Lara O’Dell, J.D., the program chair for Ivy Tech Indianapolis’ Legal and Paralegal Studies program.
“One of my proudest moments was when Sarah graduated,” O’Dell said.
Although O’Dell had not had Graham in her classes, she did serve as Graham’s advisor. O’Dell chuckles when she recounts how they first became close.
“She was a fantastic student, but she always started classes behind. She had a habit of coming into my office on the second week of classes and saying, ‘Can I get into this class?’” O’Dell said, smiling, as she recounted the memory. “And finally, one semester, I asked that she come to my office, and I said, ‘This is the last time you register late. So, let’s figure this out.’”
A working mom with two young kids, Graham appreciated the extra support from O’Dell to keep her on track.
Graham says she always needs to sing O’Dell’s praises. “She’s really the reason everything has gone the way it has. She was always available; her door was always open.”
“Lara is so involved with her students. She made every single one of us meet with her personally. She knew everybody’s specific goals and made sure we were taking advantage of the time we had and were on track to get through the program,” Graham said of Lara.
“Going to school was finally fun and enjoyable again ... I lost my academic confidence at IU Bloomington. But I gained it back when I came to [Ivy Tech] Indy.”
– Sarah Graham
One summer, Graham took an elective on media and the law, where they listened to a podcast about a wrongfully convicted man. In that very class, Graham found her passion for criminal defense.
A couple of semesters later, O’Dell was working on the Wrongful Conviction Clinic at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law with Fran Watson, J.D., and brought Graham along, opening up a legal network for her. Graham said being at that clinic further helped her realize just how much she wanted to work in post-conviction relief.
“While at Ivy Tech, I was able to go to school, attend the Wrongful Conviction Clinic, and get my first paralegal job with the Indiana State Police. All things that Lara helped me with,” Graham said.
After graduating from Ivy Tech in 2018 with her A.S., Graham started working for a law firm in Carmel. Then, she moved on to a paralegal position at the Indiana State Public Defenders, where she continued to work for nearly five years while at the same time earning her B.A. in Law in Liberal Arts and gaining her acceptance into the IU McKinney School of Law.
“Ivy Tech set me up perfectly. I wouldn’t be here without those programs and Lara’s guidance,” Graham said.
“I used to compare myself to students who got their bachelor's or master's before I could even get my associate degree. But, in the end, that doesn't matter because it’s been ten years, and I’m doing exactly what I want to do, and I’m happy doing it,” Graham said. “This isn’t a random path. This is the path for me.”
“Sarah is one of those young women who act,” O’Dell said as she shared several stories about Graham’s loyalty and ability to always show up for people, whether they were classmates, strangers, or even O’Dell herself.
“I had just been through cancer and was coming back from surgery when I organized one of my workshop days. At this particular workshop, I invited all former students, and Sarah was one of them. Afterward, I mentioned to her that I was teaching quite a few classes, and I was struggling to keep up,” O’Dell recounted. “And the next day, she had five resumes for people willing to teach some of my classes and help me out.”
Almost every year, O’Dell spends the holidays in Florida, and every year, she has looked forward to a particular photo.
“I would be down there, and I would get a screenshot of her straight A's at IU showing me just how well she was doing moving forward,” O’Dell shared.
“Being a mom, working full time, and attending law school is a lot. But I know she’s kicking it right now, and I couldn’t be prouder,” O’Dell said.
“Ivy Tech set me up perfectly. I wouldn’t be here without those programs and Lara’s guidance."
– Sarah Graham
Graham says her most prominent advice to students considering Ivy Tech’s legal and paralegal studies program is to just do it.
“It might sound cliche, but it is true. You have to do what works for you,” Graham said. Everybody's college experience is different. And you have to do what works for you because it’s the only thing that will get you to where you want to go. I mean, you can’t do what works for somebody else because then you won’t get the results you were hoping for.”
Her advice for current students is to stay involved.
“Communicate with your teachers, especially at Ivy Tech, because it's such a close-knit community that everybody wants to help you. And if you network, you will really benefit from just a few meetings and a couple of office hours. They really want to help you; they will help you find jobs and vouch for you,” Graham shared. “I wouldn't have even known about half of the opportunities I've had if it weren't for meeting with Lara or professors like Kate Guerrero.”
Graham is looking at a 2027 graduation date from IU McKinney.
If you are a student who would like to reach out to Graham for advice, you can connect with her on LinkedIn.
About Ivy Tech Community College
Ivy Tech Community College is Indiana's largest public postsecondary institution and the nation's largest singly accredited statewide community college system, accredited by the Higher Learning Commission. Ivy Tech has campuses throughout Indiana and also serves thousands of students annually online. It serves as the state's engine of workforce development, offering associate degrees, long- and short-term certificate programs, industry certifications, and training that aligns with the needs of the community. The College provides a seamless transfer to other colleges and universities in Indiana, as well as out of state, for a more affordable route to a bachelor's degree.