By 2003, 22-year-old Ben Aldana already had a long history of run-ins with police.
Starting in his early teens, a combination of drugs and a bad set of friends had set him on a path that eventually led to him spending years in federal prison on drug-related charges.
In short, he might not be who one would picture as graduating from Brigham Young University’s law school Thursday with a public defender job lined up post-graduation.
Three years of law school is tough for whoever attempts it, but for Aldana, even getting accepted to the program was a victory.
Aldana had applied to multiple law schools after getting his undergrad out of the way at Utah Valley University. Though he was accepted by multiple schools, others wouldn’t even consider him.
“There were some that were like, ‘You’re not coming to our law school,’” Aldana said. “They said, ‘We wouldn’t care if you had (the highest GPA and LSAT scores), you still wouldn’t come to our law school.’”
Before his arrest in 2004 that eventually led to prison, Aldana described himself as just an unusually angry kid.
“I got in fights and damaged property and didn’t really care at all about anybody else,” Aldana said. “I didn’t care about myself. It’s amazing that I’m still alive, honestly, when I think about the things I used to do.”
Aldana said he was participating in all kinds of activities that could have sent him to prison, but ended up getting arrested when he showed up at a friend’s house who was running a meth lab.
They connected Aldana as a supplier of iodine — one of the precursor ingredients of methamphetamine — and a judge in federal court sentenced him to 96 months, or eight years, in federal prison.
Though at first, Aldana said he was angry about being in prison, and blaming other people for what had gotten him there, it ended up being what helped him turn his life around.
Other people who had been convicted of crimes that Aldana had committed — but never been convicted of — were serving 20-year or more sentences, some of them up to life.
“I started to realize, I’m kind of lucky that I got drug into this other problem, and had somebody take me out of all the stuff I was doing and say, ‘You’re gonna sit here for a couple years … and still have an opportunity to do something while you’re still young.’”
A couple years into his prison time, Aldana started realizing that this wasn’t what he wanted for his life.
“It’s crazy that it took a couple years for that to sink in,” he said. “For me to go, ‘Maybe this is my fault, maybe I did cause these problems for myself.’ So I started doing things to make myself a better person, exercising, educational stuff, whatever I could do to occupy myself instead of stew all the time.”
Part of that involved obtaining an apprenticeship at the prison dentist office, which he applied for after noticing other inmates working there when he went to have impacted wisdom teeth removed.
Working as a dental assistant changed him.
“Before that, like I said, I was selfish,” Aldana said. “I had never actively tried to help anybody else — not that I could remember anyway. There, it became part of my job, and the people who were coming in who needed help were people who I lived with and saw all the time.”
The dentist at the prison had little time for anything except the most painful, pressing issues, and relied on Aldana and the other workers to keep the office running efficiently.
“Basically, the better job we did, the more people the dentist could see,” Aldana said. “So we kind of developed a mentality, we are going to do the best we can.”
Aldana developed a sense of empathy for people he had never had before, and when he finished serving his sentence, he knew he wanted to go to school.
When he first started talking about law school, though, only some people were encouraging.
“(Some people) laughed at me,” Aldana said. They were like, you’re a felon, you can’t do that. Nobody’s going to let you do that. It was discouraging, but at the same time, I was like, I want to do this. There were enough encouraging people to keep my hopes alive.”
In 2015, Aldana was accepted to a law school outside of Utah, and had started making plans to move there. He figured he probably hadn’t gotten into BYU anyway, and actually emailed the admissions dean to withdraw his application.
But the school emailed him, asking him to give the school until July to make the final decision. He was interviewed multiple times, and eventually accepted.
“I honestly thought they would reject my application,” Aldana said, “I figured they were thinking what I had heard in words from other places, and they were just polite enough not to say it.”
BYU takes a holistic approach when considering law school applicants, said Gayla Sorenson, the assistant dean of admissions for the BYU law school at the time. Academics are highly considered, as are leadership skills.
She said it’s not very common to see a convicted felon apply to the school, but said the admissions committee was impressed with Aldana’s character, work ethic, and desire to use his experiences to help others.
“He was always very transparent,” Sorenson said. “He affirmatively shared the information about his past and did so in a way that was very mature and very sincere, and he also had demonstrated he had a track record of changed behaviors.”
Aldana acknowledges that it’s a risk for a law school to accept someone with his past, but said he’s glad they took that chance.
“I’m glad they decided to take a chance, and I’m going to do everything I can to make them glad they did,” Aldana said.
Sorenson doesn’t seem to regret making the decision.
“My interactions have underscored all the initial good impressions he made,” Sorenson said. “He is going to use his education to serve others and I’m so proud of him for all he’s accomplished.”
Aldana spent time as a student working at the Utah County public defender’s office, and assuming he passes the bar exam in July, plans to accept a full-time position there.
At first, he wasn’t sure if being a public defender would be the right fit for him, wondering if his past provided too much baggage that would hinder his ability or emotionally affect him in a damaging way.
But after multiple opportunities in New York and Utah serving in a public defender capacity, Aldana said he was forced to look hard at what he really wanted to do.
“There’s nothing else I would want to do,” he said. “I like the work, I like people, I like their stories, I like trying to help them through what’s probably the worst experience they’ve ever had.”