There are foodies in New Orleans – one of the culinary capitals of the world – and then there is Lynette Chen.
The Tulane Law student – who will receive her J.D. on May 20 as part of the Class of 2023 – is a sought-after food influencer on Instagram (@Lynniethefoodie) with more than 23,000 followers as well as a dedicated advocate for immigrants.
And, yes, those two things are connected. During her three years at Tulane, she dove into her law school experience with the same gusto she uses to drive her followers to New Orleans’ eateries as well as those back home in the Bay Area. Food is an embodiment of culture, after all. And culture is so important to Chen, whose family migrated to the U.S. from Taiwan, that she meticulously pursued her J.D. with a specialty in immigration law to help those navigating an increasingly complex system.
Her hard work and dedication paid off; she was selected for a two-year placement with the Immigrant Justice Corps, the nation’s premier post-graduation fellowship for law students interested in immigration law.
“Tulane really helped me discover where my true passions are,” said Chen, who will be doing her IJC fellowship at Project Ishmael in New Orleans. “Because of all of the immigration law classes I took and the work I’ve done with the Immigrant Rights Clinic, I knew this is what I want to do for life. I wouldn’t have been able to realize this without Tulane Law.”
Chen will be working on cases involving children, where there is great need, and which she enjoys.
"As Lynette demonstrated through her work representing clinic clients, she naturally connects with young people, asking them about their interests and explaining legal concepts in terms they understand," said Mary Yanik, Director of the Clinic. "Project Ishmael is a perfect fit for her, and we're so thrilled that she will stay in New Orleans serving immigrant youth here."
Chen grew up in San Jose, the daughter of a widow who “constantly reminded me that I should remember where I came from.” Her father, who was an agent in the Taiwanese Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau, died in a car accident when Chen was just a year old.
“Through my mom, I was always connected to my cultural identity. We spoke Mandarin exclusively at home, so I’m fully bilingual,” she said.
She left home to attend Washington University in St. Louis, where her major was in East Asian studies and her minor in Asian American Studies.
“I thought I was going to go into academia,” recalled Chen.
A college professor talked her out of it. Instead, he recommended law school, perhaps something in international or immigration law. Chen took a gap year after graduation and began looking into law schools – and building her Instagram brand in the Bay Area as a means to make income.
She had collaborations with restaurants, took part in meetups and found ways to monetize @lynniethefoodie. And, choosing Tulane and New Orleans “because it was in such a unique and vibrant city” was exciting. Her decision was made.
That was, of course, 2019.
By the time she arrived at Tulane Law in the fall of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had driven most universities to a hybrid teaching format. The Class of 2023 spent its first year learning exclusively in Room 110, socially distant and struggling to connect.
“That 1L year was so hard for me because I had such a hard time meeting people and making friends and I’m such a social person,” said Chen. “But at the same time, the city and the law school grew on me."
She took part in a meet-up that spring that enabled her to make a small group of friends (“we’re all still together hanging out. The pandemic made us closer”). As her social circle grew in her second and third year, her “potluck” nights became a THING. There are epic stories around the law school of these foodie nights where Chen and friends made meals together, like gnocchi or charcuterie or dim sum.
“Everyone knows I have to photograph all the food before we eat,” she laughed, acknowledging, “I shamelessly use my friends’ food for my page.”
And she made more contributions to the law school and the community. She was the Lead Coordinator & Social Media Chair of Tulane Law VITA Clinic (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance), an organization that helps lower-income residents prepare their federal taxes. Over the summers, she did intake for Asian Law Alliance and was a clerk for Bet Tzedek Legal Services, helping, again, low-income individuals with their tax law issues.
Her gregarious personality was a perfect fit for the law school’s admissions team, who tapped her to become a tour guide and panelist during Admitted Students Days.
That the Class of 2023 is the first COVID-pandemic class to graduate has made them stronger, she thinks. It also showed her that her decision to pursue immigration law is the right one, as the need for more lawyers trained in the field was even more evident during the pandemic.
As a student attorney in the Clinic, she has worked on a case representing two local immigrant youths seeking protection and a pathway to permanent status in the U.S.
“I love this work and there is no doubt that this is what I want to do, especially these cases involving children,” said Chen. “I’m so grateful for the supportive network of people and professors that have helped me realize this work. I am so appreciative that they have been part of this journey.”