What many people call genius often is nothing more than a new way of seeing something that has been under everyone’s noses for longer than anyone remembers.
Milana Dostanitch ‘10 saw through her immigrant’s eyes a new way to help immigrants exploited by a system that had forced her to grow up faster than she’d imagined. And her vision launched scores of class-action lawsuits that changed both law and politics in New York, improving the lives of as many as half a million low-wage, mostly immigrant home health workers.
Born in the Soviet Union shortly before it crumbled, Milana and her parents in the early 1990s found themselves natives of countries that no longer existed. When her family relocated to Cyprus and then was forced to scatter after her father’s unexpected death, Milana at age 13 found herself on her own except for her dog, doing her schoolwork under streetlamps after the electricity in her apartment was shut off. At age 14, she went to work to keep the lights on.
“But I had a dream,” Milana says. She knew after her family crumbled as their nations had before that she wanted never again to feel as disempowered as she did as a teenager in Cyprus. “I am going to America,” she told herself, “and I am going to be a lawyer.”
After an American in Cyprus told her that Texas was underrated, Milana applied to Trinity. The admissions office reciprocated her interest. “They told me that I had a story and they would help me tell it,” she recalls. “Trinity was interested in recruiting international students who could help all students gain a different perspective on the world.”
After a successful four years at Trinity, including study abroad in Madrid, Milana planned to take the LSAT and apply to law school. To overcome her dyslexia, she practiced on every previously administered test and raised her initial 50th-percentile score to the 96th percentile. Her strong academic credentials and life experiences earned her admission to Fordham University School of Law.
After interning and clerking, she ended up encountering employers ready to exploit her immigration status to grind out of Milana even more work than the stereotypical new associate is forced to accomplish. That experience, however, exposed her to the plight of home healthcare workers who, because of a loophole, could be compelled to work hours for which they weren’t paid. Most such workers are recent female immigrants. These jobs are one of the only ways for them to earn a steady living in the US, as their native professions are often deemed obsolete due to a language barrier or need for costly requalification, so they are uniquely subject to exploitation.
Milana found in New York state law an obscure opportunity to sue on behalf of stolen wages. She remembers that her first client for that kind of case was a woman who’d been working 24/7 for 15 years. The woman had lost her family to her work schedule; her job paid the bills, but her daughter raised her sons, and all her children had abandoned her as they felt abandoned. Milana, her client told her, was “the first person who actually saw her.”
After litigation enabled by Milana’s new way of seeing her clients and their legal protections, between 300,000 and 500,000 home healthcare workers in New York now earn at least minimum wage for every hour they work.
And Milana now works for a new firm that specializes in litigation on behalf of people who’ve been discriminated against because of their age, race, gender, gender identity, or disability, as well as other categories protected under the law. She credits her passion for her work to the acceptance and love she experienced as an immigrant and Trinity student. “There is so much more to America than you see in Hollywood movies,” she says. “After feeling pretty beat up by my life, it empowered me.”
“It’s all on belief,” she says. “Put your heart into it. Your choices matter and can make a difference. If not us, then who?”