To run into Jupiter Contreras in the halls of Tulane Law School is to find a little dose of sunshine.
They are warm, smiling, larger-than-life. Contreras, the president of the incoming class of 2026, spares no time for being down, or worse, for failing to take in all that their classmates and the law school have to offer.
Perhaps it is because Contreras, at the age of 29, has more real-world experience than most. They have experienced hard work, loss, setbacks, resilience, and success. Before coming to law school, they pared down their belongings and spent four years living in a van, traveling the country, and learning how to live and perhaps more importantly, how to live life on their own time.
Along the way, they chronicled the experience on Instagram (@doesthiscountasvanlife) – doing freelance work and some consulting to pay the bills. In typical Contreras humor, their Instagram announces “I’m here, I’m queer and I’m not van-lifting.” (Insert a very large LOL emoji.)
“It was a way to save money, for sure,” they say, noting that as the child of a single mother, life was generally always hard. “I moved into a van to study for the LSAT. It was...interesting.”
Contreras is from Houston but studied in San Antonio, a graduate of the University of Texas there. In their young life, they have spent a lot of time being the support of family, especially their mom—a disabled veteran. Contreras at one point worked three jobs while in college, even as they struggled to maintain the scholarships they needed to finish undergrad.
“I initially started in the hard sciences; I was going to become a doctor,” Contreras said. “It was too much, and I was burning out. So, when I transferred, I changed my major to political science.”
Around that time, Contreras became active in the UT San Antonio debate team, leveling up to coach by senior year. They loved it – and they got a taste of what it might be like to go to law school. After graduation, they worked at AIG Houston as an operations analyst.
“I thought it might be a good way for me to pursue my passion for international relations, and put some of the skills I picked up to use,” said Contreras.
The desire to go to law school only grew stronger as time went on. Fast forward to 2019, and things were getting harder and more expensive – rent, food, everything. They had been juggling their corporate job and a weekend bartending gig to help their mom prior to taking the June LSAT. After deciding to retest, they began to put serious thought into what was next.
‘Next’ became a 1979 Coachmen RV, which Contreras gutted, rehabbed, and took on the road “before van life was cool.” That cut expenses – and then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“It was an advantageous spot to be in,” they said. “I didn’t have a house and I could travel to my mom in Arizona, and to Illinois, New Mexico, California, and Mexico. I was able to go to Roswell and the UFO museum, spend time on a lot of open land and off-grid.”
Van life was not easy. They were mostly traveling alone and were always looking for safe places to stay. The van had mechanical issues, and Contreras learned a lot about self-sufficiency. For a time, the van was out of electricity and water. The hardest part was their mother’s passing.
“All of these obstacles and events helped me in my law school journey,” Contreras said. “It was good prep, in a way, for the first year of law school, which is an inherently challenging road. So now I work hard, but my time is my time. I'm very intentional about the things that are important to me. For example, Sundays are sacred in my house. I try not to open a book unless it's for fun; I recharge.”
Important things now involve leading the first-year class, and helping them acclimate to Tulane Law. Contreras recently organized an event with the Career Development Office to provide free portraits for 1Ls, just in time for interview season.
“I’m excited about that. Headshots cost money and this is a way to give everyone a chance to get what they need for professional use,” they said.
Visiting Tulane Law as an admitted student, Contreras said they felt respected and valued. “Tulane was the one school where I never felt like I had to be anyone or anything other than my full, authentic self.”
“I feel a lot of gratitude. It’s like, after everything that’s happened, we’re in law school, now what?” said Contreras.
What did van life teach them?
“It’s OK to walk a different path – I had a chance to live. To go anywhere and do anything I wanted, whenever I wanted to. At the end of it all, I still wanted this – to be an attorney.”
It would be easier for them to tell you what they don't want in a law career, but their list of interests is long and aspirational: to work in the public interest, maybe capital appeals, on mass incarceration issues, or in the world of human rights, exploring the American institutions of civil rights and social privileges through an international lens.
“I want to carve out a space that is bigger than me,” Contreras said. “To help people who look like me and have lived like me. The only thing I really want to do with my law degree is 'good'. Whatever road that leads down is fine with me.”