As a child growing up in Jamaica, West Indies, Carolyn Chang often went without shoes and missed a few years of education. Her family could not afford the school and uniform fees required for Jamaican public schools.
Nevertheless, she always dreamed big. “From the time I could think, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer,” says Chang, a graduate of Rutgers University-New Brunswick and Rutgers Law School in Camden. “In Jamaica, attorneys are revered as pillars of the community who help people in need. I never heard a lawyer joke until I came to the United States.“
Today, Chang, who has practiced family law in Burlington County since 1991, continues to be inspired by her profession. From her office in Mount Holly, she looks out onto the Olde Historic Courthouse where she has represented clients on many family issues, such as guardianship of young adults and the elderly, divorce, child support and juvenile matters.
At age 14, Chang and her siblings came to the United States to join their mother, who was living in East Orange, New Jersey. Her mother, who worked as a seamstress, had saved for years to be able to bring her children to America.
Academically, Chang excelled at both Vernon L. Davey Junior High School and East Orange High School. “Despite missing a few years of school, I was able to do well because in Jamaica I read every book I could get my hands on and I studied all the time,” she says. (To Kill a Mockingbird was her favorite.) A National Honor Society member, she graduated fifth out of a class of nearly 600.
Chang says it would have been difficult to attend Rutgers – and almost impossible to live on campus – without the university’s Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) program, which provides academic counseling and financial support to promising students from economically disadvantaged families. “My EOF counselor, Wally Torian, taught me to maneuver around Rutgers and helped prepare me for life,” says Chang, who earned her BA in political science and English in 1981.
Upon graduation, Chang worked at the state of New Jersey’s Katzenbach School for the Deaf while matriculating as a part-time evening student at Rutgers Law School in Camden. After four years, in 1987, she earned her juris doctor.
Chang says that because she grew up poor, she has terrific empathy for others. “I understand what it’s like to want and not have,” she says. “I truly believe to whom much is given, much is expected.”
Outside of the courtroom, Chang devotes herself to community and public service. A former mayor and committeewoman of Westampton Township, she was recently elected president of the Association of Black Women Lawyers of New Jersey, an organization that she has been involved with for 25 years. The organization mentors law students, provides scholarships and offers members workshops and counsel to help them advance in their careers.
For her professional and community contributions, Chang has been named Professional Lawyer of the Year by the New Jersey Commission on Professionalism in the Law; a Woman of Distinction by the Girl Scouts of Central and Southern New Jersey; and Woman of the Year by Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., Delta Zeta Chapter – to name a few of her accolades. Last year, the Association of Black Women Lawyers of New Jersey honored Chang for her work as a “trailblazer, mentor and role model” who has shattered barriers and paved the way for others.
Such are the core values Chang brings to her relationship with Rutgers. In 2007, she established a scholarship in her name at Rutgers-New Brunswick – with a very special focus. Each year $750 is awarded to an EOF student from a Caribbean background with an interest in attending law school. The funds contribute to approximately half the fee for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) preparation course. The scholarship is a way for Chang to give back – although, she says, she gets a great deal in return.
“Rutgers has given me and my family so much,” says Chang, whose husband, Ronald, is a graduate of Rutgers School of Engineering. The couple are the parents of two children who both attend Rutgers. Chelsea, a 2015 Rutgers-New Brunswick graduate is pursuing her master of social work at the university’s School of Social Work, and Christian is a junior at Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences.
“It has been incredibly rewarding to remain involved with Rutgers and EOF,” she says. “In great measure, because of Rutgers I am able to live my dream.”