“The Residential College is where I developed my social consciousness, as well as the lifelong friendships that have sustained me in my work and life.”
A culture of punishment, intertwined with inequities along lines of race and class, have led to the United States having the largest incarceration rate of any country in the world. Mihal became acutely aware of these complex issues while at the RC. She credits Helen Fox’s class ‘Nonviolence in Action’ as a class that taught her about the power of deep, active listening, and the necessity of developing social justice strategies rooted in creativity and love. When she was a freshman in East Quad, one of her fellow RCers - a sophomore - kept insisting that she take Buzz Alexander’s class, ‘Prison and the Artist.” After confronting the abuses that people endured in prison, “there was no turning back for me.” Mihal joined the Prison Creative Arts Project, where she created meaningful and lasting friendships with people on both sides of the prison walls.
“I think the RC in general had a strong and nurturing social justice community, one where I could--sometimes clumsily--learn about my own complicity in oppressive, racist systems and gain tools for fighting against that complicity and dismantling those systems. The RC also taught me how important it is to embrace uniqueness, maintain playfulness, be committed to solidarity and transformation, develop a global perspective, and create a deep and connected community.”
Living in East Quad, Mihal also learned how many surprising and meaningful interactions you can have when you keep your doors open. “Literally. Our doors were always open.” Mihal remembers many fun little moments during her time in the RC. “Seeing the elaborate obstacle course one guy built in his dorm room. Listening to my next door neighbor play the harp she built from scratch. Spending late nights in the Halfass sharing piles of mozzarella sticks with friends.”
After graduating from the University of Michigan, Mihal worked for five years as a Court Advocate for the Center for Community Alternatives, an afterschool program for children who would otherwise be incarcerated or facing confinement. Mihal then took her passions to Harvard Law School. At Harvard, she was a Student Attorney with Harvard Defenders, the Prison Legal Assistance Project, and the Criminal Justice Institute, the school’s public defense clinic. Now, Mihal is an Equal Justice Works Fellow, where she supports incarcerated and recently released parents as they navigate family reunification, and works with people on the outside to sustain their connections to their loved ones inside. Her work consists of direct legal representation, as well as movement lawyering, and developing community education workshops with organizers and impacted families.
One notable accomplishment Mihal had as a student attorney came when she got a ten-count disciplinary ticket dismissed after her incarcerated client got punished in prison for passing a kidney stone during a drug test. Instead of being taken to a doctor, her client was chained inside a visiting cell for hours and then placed in solitary confinement. She cross-examined multiple corrections officers in front of a hearing officer who was a former prison guard himself. Despite the imbalance in the process, all ten counts were ultimately dismissed. “Hearing that we won the entire case was one of the best moments in my work, not only because we were able to prevent this man from spending more time in solitary confinement, but also because it was meaningful for him to be believed for once, and have it publicly acknowledged that what happened to him was truly wrong.”
Mihal openly talks about one of her early setbacks - initially failing the California Bar Exam - and how much gratitude she has for the experience. “When I found out I didn’t pass, I immediately felt compelled to disrupt the shame and silence that surrounds not passing the exam.” While everyone else was posting screenshots of their names on the “Pass” list, Mihal went public about not passing. “I learned that there is often more to learn from failing than passing, that it was something I could not only handle but also grow from, and that we can’t let socially constructed metrics of success define our worth.” Mihal passed on her second try and now mentors students who are struggling to pass the bar exam in order to pay forward the support she got when she was studying.
Mihal encourages RC students, “If you have a decision to make, try to figure out which choice is based in fear, then make the other choice. You’ll be ok. Also, something I still work on refining in my daily life is to show up when and how you say you will and - on the other side of that coin - don’t overpromise. It’s ok to let people know when you’re at capacity. They’ll appreciate the transparency and there will always be other opportunities.”
Congratulations, Mihal, on your accomplishments, and here’s to many more! We are proud to call you an RC graduate!
Profile written by Robby Griswold, RC ‘07 Arts and Ideas, and Reginald James Roque Galanto, RC ‘22 undecided.