A life of service: Chef majors in pre-law at UWM to promote social justice

When Daniel Pope was working as a chef at Lula Café in Chicago, he manned the kitchens with a line cook named Cipriano.

“He was the best line cook I have ever seen. I mean, the way he moved,” Pope recalled. “He was like a ballet dancer. He never spoke during service. He would make jokes before and after, but during service he was always really focused.”

Cipriano took off for a week to visit Mexico. But when the week was up, he didn’t return. Like many kitchens in the restaurant industry, employees are tight-lipped about their immigration status. Pope never knew for sure, but the rumors were that Cipriano was late in returning because there were some problems with the coyotes – guides who help people cross the U.S./Mexico border illegally.

“It really struck me,” Pope recalled. “Here’s this guy that shows up earlier than all of us, who works harder than all of us, but wasn’t getting the same benefits as all of us because there are some lines on a map and some laws that he couldn’t navigate because of language difficulties. There wasn’t an advocate.”

So, he decided to become one. And that was Daniel Pope’s first step on the journey to pre-law at UW-Milwaukee.

The road to college

Pope is not your traditional student. He’s in his 40s, married, and enjoyed a long career as a chef before he decided to earn his Bachelor’s.

His dad was in the Air Force, and Pope followed his father’s postings around the United States as a kid. His work in the restaurant industry began as a teenager when he was living in Omaha, Nebraska.

“I became a vegetarian. This was 1995 in Omaha, so I had to learn to cook for myself,” he joked. Then he found that he liked cooking. He began working in restaurants, went to culinary school, and established a career as a chef before he and his wife settled in Milwaukee to be close to family. He’s worked at restaurants like AP Bar and Kitchen and Glass + Griddle. Today, he’s a pastry chef at an Italian restaurant in Bayview.

But the restaurant industry is hard on your body, and Pope was ready for a change. He’d always been interested in politics – “I follow politics the way most people follow the Kardashians or cooking shows,” Pope laughed – and was also interested in law. His experiences watching immigrant line cooks being treated unfairly made him want to do more to help.

“And then I guess, it all came to a head when President Trump issued his Muslim travel ban,” Pope said. He watched in fascination as people rallied at airports to protest the executive order that prohibited travelers and refugees from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States.

“It was suspended by a couple of lawyers in New York, and I went, ‘This is something a person can do. … A couple of people with the right brains and the right words can stop this. You can fight for something.”

Pope was also inspired by his wife, who after years as a server, decided to attend college to earn her nursing degree. With her example, the inspiration of ACLU lawyers fighting the travel ban, and his desire to help immigrants like Cipriano, Pope enrolled at UW-Milwaukee and majored in political science on the pre-law track.

Pope is set to graduate this May and has been accepted to Marquette Law School in the fall.

Hopes for the future

Pope has thrived in his classes, and he especially appreciates his courses with professor Sara Benesh.

“She has given me the hardest exams, and because they’ve been the most challenging, I’ve learned the most from her,” Pope said. “She emphasized the importance of (precedent) and the language of the law. I think it’s given the me the most preparation for what to come ahead – because I’ve still got to do the law school part.”

He’s also enjoyed his classes with professor Paru Shah, who teaches about city politics and demographics.

Though he did well at UWM, Pope was still nervous when it came time to apply to law school. He’s older than the typical student and his work experience is in the service industry. He thought his varied background might help him be a better lawyer, but wasn’t sure that law school admissions officers would feel the same.

But they did, and Pope is preparing for his first semester as a law student. He hopes to focus on immigration or labor law – something that will help him help “the little guy.”

He knows he’ll face opposition, especially because immigration can be a controversial issue.

“I’m not getting into this to facilitate illegality,” Pope said firmly. “I’m getting into this to try and facilitate an easier legality. … You need to feed your family and you can get across (the border) and get that food within a week without

following the (immigration) process, or you can follow the process and you don’t know how long it’s going to take. I’m trying to do this so that the people who do want to work are rewarded for that.”

It might make all the difference for the Ciprianos of the world.