Maria Fischer ’07 knew where she wanted to go, but the route wasn’t quite the one she might have imagined. Even as the Bronx, N.Y., native began her undergraduate studies at nearby Lehman College in the mid-1980s, Fischer was looking ahead to studying law. “I was really interested in becoming a criminal defense attorney,” recalled Fischer of her early plans.
Often, though, youthful strategies are drawn in the sand, becoming increasingly blurred with each new wave, and it wasn’t long before Fischer was married and relocated to Long Island. She had also withdrawn from college for the opportunity to work in finance for Manhattan-based sporting goods retailer Gerry Cosby and Co. By the end of the decade, Fischer’s husband’s job led them to Plainsboro, N.J., where the couple began their family, while forging ahead in their respective careers.
All the while, though, Fischer still felt the call of her education, even as she rose through the ranks at Cosby, but the time constraints of work, while raising three children, kept her dream – particularly law school – deferred.
The birth of their middle child, however, altered Fischer’s course. Traci, who was born in 1993 with multiple disabilities that stalled her intellectual development, became an impetus, not an impediment, toward her mother’s goal.
“She is intellectually delayed, and reads at a 3rd-grade level,” Fischer explained of her second daughter, who is now 18. “She’s able to do some very basic math, but no division or multiplication, and while you won’t notice her disabilities immediately, they become apparent when you talk to her.”
As the family grappled with the local school system to ensure that Traci’s educational needs and rights were being met, Fischer’s purpose began to crystallize.
“There is a federal mandate that children must be provided a free, appropriate education,” she explained, noting that sometimes, the most appropriate program exists beyond that child’s local school district. “I got to be very good at advocating for Traci, but there is only a limited amount you can do for others if you’re not a lawyer. I’m really driven by my personal experiences.”
The turning point in her decision to return to college came right in her own home, when Fischer helped the family’s teenaged babysitter, who was looking to become a school teacher, research Rider University.
“The Rider website really drew me in,” she recalled. Fischer met with counselors in the University’s College of Continuing Studies in 2000 to review her transcripts, and enrolled in class the next week.
Concentrating on Law & Justice, Fischer was a bit apprehensive about her return after a 15-year absence. She registered for one weeknight class, and one on a Saturday. “I was very nervous about juggling it all,” recalled Fischer, who is also a mother to Kelly, now a 21-year-old college student, and Matthew, 14, a middle-schooler.
Striking a comfortable balance between the classroom and her other responsibilities, Fischer was also able to accelerate her pace with help from the Charlotte W. Newcombe Foundation, which awards scholarships to individuals from several groups, including “mature women students” who have completed half of their baccalaureate program. In her application essay for the Newcombe scholarship, Fischer noted the challenges she faced in earning her degree while raising her family and remaining active in community service organizations, such as the Girl Scouts and Boys Scouts of America, all while hoping to attend law school.
“The money I received from the Newcombe Foundation was a tremendous help,” she recalled. “It allowed me to take an additional class per semester, so I was very excited.”
That, along with an Undergraduate Research Scholarship Award over her final two semesters at Rider, permitted Fischer to finish her degree sooner than she had expected, and she enrolled at Seton Hall University School of Law in the fall of 2007, with a focus on working in disability law. She received her J.D. in May 2011, and accepted a position with the firm of Hinkle, Fingles & Prior in Lawrenceville, perhaps the most renowned disability-law firm in the region.
“I’m an advocate for individuals with disabilities,” said Fischer, drawing special attention to the plight of students who graduate from various educational programs at the age of 21 and work through the state Division of Developmental Disabilities on their transition to adulthood. Without proper representation, these individuals can face uncertain futures. “Guardianship comes into play for people past the age of 18, and parents of individuals with disabilities have to plan their estates in such a way that their children are cared for and their eligibility for government benefits is preserved.”
As Fischer learned well before passing the bar exam, navigating the legal labyrinth of disability law can be an intimidating prospect for parents of children with disabilities, but she says that her personal experience helps break down barriers for the ones who reach out to her for help.
“A number of parents have already told me that the fact that I understand what they’re going through made the process so much easier,” said Fischer, who also serves on the Board of Directors of The Arc of Mercer County. “It’s one less thing to worry about if the person on the other end of the phone understands.”
A version of this story appeared in the spring 2012 issue of Rider magazine.