Kate Belyayeva ’22 first came to the United States from Ukraine in 2013 to attend high school through the Future Leaders Exchange Program after a highly competitive, merit-based selection process. After graduating from high school in Alabama, she received a full-tuition Chancellor’s Scholarship to attend Troy University in Troy, Alabama, where she earned a Bachelor of Science in Public Accounting. Throughout her time in college, she realized her passion for tax law from both her classes and volunteering as an income tax preparer with Safe First (VITA). She then applied for, and received, Cumberland School of Law’s premier scholarship—the Jere F. White Fellowship. At Cumberland, she was very involved, including being an integral member of the National Trial Team and the Cumberland Law Review.
Q: Where will you start your first professional legal role and is tax law still an area of interest?
A: I am very excited to start my professional career at Maynard Cooper & Gale as an associate attorney in the Employee Benefits and Executive Compensation Group. Though I have been afforded many opportunities to explore my interests in litigation and different types of transactional work during my time at Cumberland, my interest remains in tax law.
Q: Since tax law is your area of interest, do you have an aspirational goal with that type of practice?
A: I am fortunate to have found my niche in tax law about five years ago when I was pursuing my bachelor’s degree. Since then, I have been intentional about taking every tax class and learning from the opportunities available to me at Cumberland. My first overall goal entering this field is to never stop being a student to the attorneys and educators of the law in my surroundings. Second, I aspire to help make tax law more friendly and approachable to my clients and those impacted by tax policies. And finally, I hope to be able to give back to the community in which I reside and practice.
Q: Do you still have family in Ukraine? If so, how are they and how do you cope with anxiety that you might experience about the war happening there?
A: My entire family is still in Ukraine, including my mom and my brother. Needless to say, the past few months have been filled with daily worry and anxiety about the recent events in my home country. Keeping a constant line of communication with my mom and being well-informed about the war has been the only way for me to cope with the situation. I have been overwhelmed by the support I have received in the form of comforting words, condolences, prayers and financial donations. Thank you to all who have stood up for my country and the nations that have come to its defense. It is incredible to see people come together for the shared cause in helping Ukraine. My hope is that this conflict resolves soon and that my family along with millions of others are able to find safety and recover from this devastating event.
Q: What, or who, kept you motivated to stay in the United States, away from your family?
A: Ever since I was little, my mom has always encouraged me to do the impossible. In a country where the monthly minimum wage is less than $100 dollars, I was very fortunate my mother did not deny me a future full of dreams that cost far beyond what her wages could afford. When I was selected for the Future Leaders Exchange Program, my mom had to take out a loan to afford my suitcase as she believed in my dreams even more so than I did, and so she made it work. When we found out I had received a scholarship for college, my mother sold her gold jewelry to buy me a one-way ticket back to the United States because she wanted me to build a better life than she had. Throughout the last 10 years, my mom’s faith in me has not waivered. She believes I can do anything, and that’s what makes me believe in myself. She sacrificed a lot for me to earn my place in the United States—that’s what kept me motivated to stay here, away from my family and friends. Now, the United States has become my new home over the years with new family and friends, and I get to experience the richness of both Ukraine and the U.S.
Q: As you reflect upon the last three years you spent in law school, what makes you smile the most?
A: What makes me smile the most when I reflect upon the last three years are my friends, without a doubt. Growing up, I rarely felt like I was a part of something greater than myself. I did not play sports nor was I a part of any social clubs. Of course, I have met some people with my shared interests throughout high school and college, but it was not until law school that I met so many people with a shared purpose. Together, we experienced the good and the bad while creating a bond that undoubtedly will last for years. I look forward to seeing them all grow, develop and reach great success in both their careers and personal lives.
Q: Would you have done anything differently?
A: I think many of us who decide to pursue law are “Type A” perfectionists to a fault. Even though Cumberland cultivates a very healthy educational environment, there is always a sense of competition that cannot be eliminated because of the inherent nature of law school as an institution. I have always been my greatest competitor and critic—looking back, I should have given myself more grace and worried less.
Q: Where do you find your source of hope and inspiration?
A: My biggest source of hope and inspiration are my family and Jesus Christ. I discovered my interests many years ago, but I would not have been able to pursue them if it wasn’t for my family and friends believing in me and the grace of God guiding me. Reflecting on the course of my educational journey, I realize that I was blessed with a series of opportunities—the Future Leaders Exchange program, the Troy University scholarship and the Jere F. White Fellowship. Growing up I was surrounded by people whose chances at a better life were taken away by corruption, oligarchy and now an ongoing, futile war. I was one of the lucky—I’d call it blessed—ones to have been granted an opportunity to pursue my interests and a better life. When I need to draw hope or inspiration, I reflect on the past—to the times where God has provided for me and when my family has sacrificed for me even when things felt impossible or unattainable—to keep going each day.
Q: Do you have advice for those just beginning law school?
A: To all the first years—take advantage of every opportunity presented to you. Cumberland has a lot to offer, and it’s easy to get caught up in the daily study grind instead of getting involved, making friends and seizing opportunities for personal and professional growth. When I was a 1L, I was confident in my choice of practice area to a fault. I am very thankful that I did not let that confidence hold me back from exploring the myriad of activities available to me. Although I landed back where I started, deciding to pursue tax law, I have expanded my skill set through becoming a member of the National Trial Team and clerking for a federal judge. Initially, I did not anticipate that these activities would be a part of my law school journey because, at first sight, they might seem unrelated to tax law. However, I truly believe that it was essential for me to experience these in order to become a more successful and well-rounded lawyer—not to mention the friends and connections I made during the process will likely reap future opportunities.