Find your niche

Donna Nixon

Clinical Assistant Professor and Electronic Resources and Access Services Librarian, School of Law

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Donna Nixon almost missed the panel discussion that changed her life. It was the third year of law school, and she had a lot of studying to do. The afternoon event on alternative law jobs was optional for students, so Nixon thought about skipping it.

But she didn’t.

“I had never thought about law librarians, but there was one speaking on the panel,” Nixon recalled. “The minute she started talking, I knew that was what I wanted to do. I knew it was a perfect fit.”

Nixon is now in her 18th year as a law librarian, having served in leadership roles at both Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill. Today, she is the Electronic Resources Librarian at the UNC School of Law, where she is also a clinical assistant professor.

For someone who loves research, problem-solving, and legal scholarship, it’s proved an ideal career.

“It’s like detective work,” Nixon said. “And I get to be in a learning environment every day, which really appeals to me. I’ve always loved learning.”

Curiosity and dedication are evident in the long journey that brought Nixon to Carolina. She grew up in a public housing project in New York City and remembers devouring books from an early age. No one in her immediate family had been to college, but they encouraged her love of learning. “The library was one of my favorite places growing up,” Nixon said. “I spent hours and hours reading.”

She graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School before going on to community college. She found a full-time job as an administrative assistant, then devoted her nights and weekends to studying for a bachelor’s degree. It was tough to find the energy for schoolwork after a long day at the office, but Nixon was dedicated.

It was hard to find the time and energy for schoolwork after a long day as an administrative assistant for the New York City Department of Transportation.

“I started out figuring I would be an English major,” Nixon said.

But a particularly good professor shifted her focus to computer science. “It was a very new discipline at the time, and everyone had to take a basic computing language course. I absolutely loved the logic of it, so I changed my major.”

After graduation, those new tech skills helped Nixon thrive in a job with the New York State Unified Court System, where she worked alongside lawyers, judges and court staff each day. She took civil service exams and moved up the ranks, and was eventually encouraged by her colleagues to think about law school.

Having completed her undergraduate degree by taking part-time classes, she assumed law school would happen the same way, squeezed in between work and day-to-day responsibilities. But then Stanford Law came calling with a scholarship offer and the opportunity to come visit the school in Palo Alto.

“I had mostly gone to school part-time, so I had never experienced the life of campus like a resident student could,” Nixon said. “I just had to be focused on my studies and my job.”

Enrolling in law school full-time — and flying across the country to a brand-new place, with a campus full of people she had never met — allowed her to get completely engaged in academic life for the first time.

“I had heard such nightmarish things about law school, but it wasn’t like that at all,” she remembered. “It was such a collegial atmosphere, and so welcoming.”

And it gave her the chance to explore a variety of career paths she hadn’t considered before.

“I spent summers working for big law firms and for the Texas Attorney General’s Office,” she said. “None of them felt like a good fit. I hadn’t found a niche that worked
for me.”

Until that campus career panel, and the discovery that law librarians are deeply connected to legal scholarship, technical research and real-world service to students and attorneys. It’s a career that has allowed Nixon to keep nurturing her wide-ranging curiosity, the drive that pushed her become the first in her family to graduate college.

“I didn’t even know this career existed,” she said. “It wasn’t anywhere on my radar, and that’s why you have to make connections and explore. Make sure you have activities that are not just focused on going to class, but really let you try new things.”

That advice holds true long after college. This summer, Nixon flew straight from a conference of law librarians to a very different sort of gathering. “It’s a dance weekend,” she said, preparing to board a plane to Atlanta. “A dance community — a few hundred people — getting together. We do soul line dancing.”

And in dance as in college life, Nixon is known for persistence.

“All weekend, I don’t get off the dance floor,” she said. “As long as I know the music, I’m out there.”

By Eric Johnson