“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Tricia Dunlap could write a book based on this famous quote by philosopher Fredrick Nietzsche. How did a single parent and mother of three find her way to law school in the midst of raising a family and teaching high school?

It began when a flood and a hurricane hit Tricia and her family in the same year. When she bought her house in the flood plain along Beach Road in Chesterfield County, Virginia, she thought it would be a “manageable risk” as long as she had insurance. On Memorial Day, 2003, torrential rains forced Swift Creek over its banks and her home flooded with more than three feet of water. Although she had insurance, it only covered part of the damage. Tricia and her children stayed in a friend’s basement for six weeks while she cleaned and repaired their home. Just three months after the first flood, in September of 2003, Hurricane Isabel flooded Tricia’s house and three neighboring homes with over six feet of fetid, brown water.

Tricia embarked on a one-woman crusade to find solutions for her family and her neighbors. “I decided to pursue every angle of a solution from elevation, to repair, to rebuilding, and even bankruptcy," she says. "My goal was always to keep things stable for my kids.”

Tricia’s research skills led her to the Hazard Mitigation Program Grant (HMPG) offered by FEMA. HMPG grants provide funds to state and local governments to implement long-term hazard mitigation measures after a major disaster. Flood insurance is subsidized by federal taxpayer dollars, and because it is often less expensive to remove a chronic-flood property than it is to pay claims year after year, FEMA created the HMPG. The HMPG program buys hazardous properties, demolishes them, and leaves the land as publically owned, permanent green space. 

Tricia alerted county officials about the grant but met significant resistance. She lobbied for months before making a formal presentation before the Board of Supervisors in January 2004. The Board voted unanimously to apply for the HMPG—a process that could take two years to complete. With her rental assistance ending soon, Tricia lobbied the federal government and the grant was approved in August 2004, ultimately funding the buy-out and demolition of four hazardous homes in Chesterfield. While waiting for the buy-out, Tricia secured a bridge loan and bought her new home at auction in October 2004. Tricia and her children moved in time for Christmas. 

“After that experience, I realized that the whole fight had been fun," Tricia says. "I enjoyed finding the solution and convincing people that I was right. As she reflects on her decision to study law, Tricia advises, “Do not make decisions out of fear. Decisions made out of fear don’t come out right. If there is a legitimate reason for not going to law school, that’s one thing, but information is power. The more information you have, the more appropriate the decision will be for your life.”

Before law school, Tricia taught high school for 12 years. “Teaching was a deliberate choice," she says. "I wanted a job that meshed well with motherhood.” Her youngest son is now 12. “If he wasn’t the fine young man he is, I would not be able to achieve my goals," she says. "He is so responsible and trustworthy. It makes being his mom easy.” Tricia says she enjoyed teaching, but once her children got older, she was eager to have a more direct impact on the world outside the classroom. She applied to Richmond Law where she found a sense of community. She says choosing Richmond provided stability for her family and a new and exciting career. “My fellow students are amazingly supportive," she says. "People really have my back. I absolutely could not do what I am doing without help. The law degree that I’m getting is not mine – it’s a community effort. I’m just blessed.”  

While attending Richmond, Tricia has interned with McGuireWoods, LLP and for U.S. Magistrate Judge M. Hannah Lauck. “I decided to observe Judge Lauck’s courtroom and later ran into her. She remembered me and asked what I wanted to do in the future. I told her that I wanted to intern in her office and that’s how I got the job!” Tricia has two summer associate jobs lined up for the summer of 2010 at Christian & Barton and LeClair Ryan. Currently, Tricia serves as a research assistant for former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine who will teach at Richmond Law in fall 2010.

How does Tricia manage it all? “I know what the end goal is – I want to transform the world we have today into a world that is more just, more sustainable and a truer manifestation of American principles,” she says.  

Tricia plans to use her law degree to work as a consultant to corporations and to impact public policy. “I want to help corporations realize that they can increase profit through more sustainable, lower-impact ways of doing business," she says. "I want to leave the earth better than I found it.”

(Photo of Tricia and her children in their flooded home, courtesy of Richmond Times-Dispatch)