“It was one of those things I’ll never forget,” says Dr. Kathy Cook, Instructor and Internship Coordinator for Legal Studies. “When a first-year student tells you they’re going to graduate with a perfect four-year, 4.0 GPA, you remember that.” That’s exactly what Lianna “Lia” Hartwell told Dr. Cook when she arrived as a freshman. Lia graduated with a degree in Legal Studies—with a perfect 4-year 4.0 GPA. So when the New Jersey transplant won the First American Title Scholarship, no one was surprised.

But Lia thinks back to even before she came to UCF, which she was drawn to on a campus visit. “I felt really at home at UCF,” she said. “The staff and faculty were open and accepting. They didn’t know me at all and really went out of their way to help us.” Her four years at UCF would take her through and prepare her for numerous successes.

As a student in the Burnett Honors College, Lia wrote a thesis on the use of circumstantial evidence in convicting defendants in high-profile murder cases. Her thesis was particularly impressive to David Slaughter, an associate professor and the Legal Studies program director. He was also a member of Lia’s thesis review committee. “Lia’s thesis was very well written and she gave an excellent presentation,” he said. The way she compared some of the more sensational historical cases with more current ones was extremely well done. We all had high expectations of her and she did not disappoint.”

Even while keeping her 4.0 intact, working numerous jobs, studying for the LSAT and commuting from St. Cloud every day, Lia still found time to volunteer as a mentor at Harmony Middle School, helping students prepare for the international science fair. “The students had to pick an epidemic issue and evaluate it,” Lia said. “I got two UCF professors to help. We chose to study gene-splicing in the prevention of HIV and AIDS. We studied a tribe in Africa that is immune to the virus. Our group was the only 6th grade team allowed to enter the fair. The other teams were all from the 8th grade. Our team didn’t win but they were asked to submit their work the next year.”

“Lia was a remarkable student,” said Dr. Cook. “In addition to graduating with honors, she managed to work and study, and get involved in the college, all while dealing with some difficult issues of her own. She excelled in just about everything she did and never used any personal problems as an excuse. In fact, I believe those personal challenges helped her focus on what was really important to her—an education.”

Lia has gone on to pursue her law degree at Florida International University in Miami. Her focus is on criminal law, a passion of hers. “My grandfather is retired from the Air Force so I’ve been interested in their JAG (Judge Advocate General) program for a long time.” Each year, only 100-120 attorneys are selected as Air Force Judge Advocates through several different accession programs. The JAG program offers attorneys a rare opportunity to practice law and make a valuable and lasting contribution to our country. “I’d like to make it to the JAG Corps someday, but my ultimate goal is to return to UCF as a professor.”

Those may seem like lofty goals, but judging by her early successes, there’s no questions she’ll reach them.