As a child she fled Cuba, in the early 1960s, with nothing but a few newspaper clippings and the clothes on her back.
Friday, Denise Posee-Blanco Lindberg will receive her fifth degree when she is awarded a juris doctorate at Brigham Young University.Lindberg will graduate at the top of her law school class. Complementing that honor will be a future clerkship with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
"I've thought considerably about why I've undertaken so much formal education, and I think my studies have a lot to do with my experience in coming to America," she says. "My mother's good education gave her the ability to find employment, and that was the only thing that kept her, my brother and me out of welfare."
Until she was 10, Lindberg lived comfortably in a family of well-educated landowners in Cuba. Her mother, Margot Blanco de Posse, a friend of Fidel Castro at the University of Havana, had accepted a job as his press secretary after his rise to power in 1959.
Within a year it was apparent that Castro was leaning toward Marxism, and Posse, who was pro-American, resigned. She later was labeled an undesirable alien and told to leave Cuba within 72 hours.
Posse was Puerto Rican, and because her children also had American citizenship they were allowed to accompany her. Her husband, Antonio Posse, was Cuban and not allowed to leave until much later.
Denise entered BYU early at age 15 to major in broadcasting. She was a few years ahead of the rush of women entering the field, and the only communications job she could find was as a secretary.
"I would never criticize those who are secretaries, but I had not sacrificed money and time to be a secretary, and I started to look for other opportunities."
She found a job working with minorities in west-side Salt Lake City, a position that required a bachelor's degree and fluency in Spanish. She had taken enough counseling classes as an undergraduate to know that she should have additional training.
"I felt the need not to ruin people's lives," she says. "That led to my first master's degree, in educational psychology from the University of Utah."
She put her career on hold for a few years while she and her husband, Neil, moved to California and she stayed home to take care of their first child. After they returned to Utah, she obtained a position with the Utah Division of Alcohol and Drugs. Within a couple of years, though, she became "burned out" from working with drug abusers.
"After a while you lose perspective on what is normal, and I was frustrated with the sense that I was intervening too late, after people had messed up their lives," she says. "I thought there must be a better way to help, and I got involved with earning a Ph.D. in health sciences, because its focus was on prevention."
At the same time, she studied for and earned a master's of social work.
She eventually accepted a one-year contract to teach at the BYU Salt Lake Center and was selected for a post with the Utah State Office of Education. Part of her job involved long-range planning and preparing policies for presentation to the Legislature. She worked with attorneys and became intrigued with the way they thought.
"They seemed so much better at honing in on issues than I was," she says. "They could translate the material in a way that made sense for the Legislature. I was still caught up in being the technician, or expert, but not really knowing how to convey that information."
She took the Law School Admission Test but nothing more for two years. Lindberg's legal aspirations probably would have died had she not happened during a church dinner to sit across from Eugene Jacobs, a BYU law professor, and commented that she had once dreamed of law school.
"He said, `Heaven knows there are enough lawyers,' but he added I was ornery enough to make a good attorney. I was flattered with his backhanded compliment, but I didn't think about it again until Gene handed me the admissions papers a few days later."
Within three weeks she was accepted by the J. Reuben Clark Law School and given a full scholarship, initially a minority scholarship that allowed Hispanics and other minorities to attend school.
Lindberg says part of her success to date has been possible because of luck, some natural ability, hard work and unending support from her husband, Neil, and sons, Brooks and Van.
"We make all our decisions as a family, and when we decided I would go to law school, the three men in my life basically ran the household. Sure, there have been some trade-offs, but the effort has been worth it."
Unlike earlier experiences when she graduated from college and couldn't find work in her field, Lindberg's latest achievement is accompanied by many opportunities. She has been articles editor for BYU Law Review. While she waits for her clerkship with O'Connor to begin, she will complete another prestigious clerkship with the Monroe G. McKay of the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.