Māori law student receives doctoral degree at 22 years old

updated By Mare Haimona-Riki

Sala McCarthy-Stonex has recently graduated with a Juris Doctorate degree (JD) and a Masters of Public Affairs (MPA), ahead of her 23rd birthday.

Sala (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Tūwharetoa) was born in Auckland but moved to Arizona with her mum and sister where they lived on the Navajo Reservations.

The whānau then moved to Hawai’i where Sala has lived most of her life surrounded by Polynesian role models.

Sala says her mum has been her greatest influence.

“My mum always instilled in me that we are just as qualified as anyone else and it's important for us to be representatives of our people and to pave that way for others to aspire to greater things,” she says. 

Sala McCarthy-Stonex outside her Law School in Provo, Utah - Photo / Supplied 

Sala began her bachelor's degree at the age of 17, in which she completed in two years - averaging 22 credits per semester (standard being 12-14 credits).

She received her JD doctorate degree and masters degree from BYU Law School (Utah, USA) last week, a feat that would typically take a minimum of five years; which she completed in four. 

Surprisingly, Sala does not have aspirations to be a lawyer.

“The skills and the purpose of being an advocate was always something that I felt was important especially for our people.

"I knew that whatever professional field I got into later on, I would need these credentials," she explains.

Sala admits she has aspirations to run for President of the United States in 2032. 

"I’ve aspired to become the President of the United States (POTUS) since I was 15 and read the Declaration of Independence.

"The current political climate is a mess, with much of the American people extremely divided over every issue and everything being divisive and competitive— I want to change that," she says.

Sala McCarthy, her sister and mum - Photo / Supplied

Although Sala wasn't raised in Aotearoa, her mum would bring them home at least once a year.

Now she has completed her academic goals, Sala is looking forward to making the move home. 

“I’m moving in a few weeks to see where it takes me. Move back in with mum and see all the whānau."

Clarification -

BYU Dean of Communications for the J.Reuben Clark Law School, Lynnett Rands, has clarified and confirmed the JD achieved by Sala in the following statement:

"I can confirm that BYU Law graduates hold a Juris Doctorate degree (JD) which is a doctoral degree in law. A JD is the highest law degree in the United States. BYU Law is a premier graduate program in which applicants must have earned a bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university prior to the start of law school. 

We have joint graduate degree programs available to candidates that desire to earn a Masters in Business Administration (MBA), Masters in Public Administration (MPA), Masters in Accounting (MAcc), and Masters in Education (MEd) in addition to a JD, requiring an additional year of study. Participation in our joint degree programs is certainly not compulsory, with only a small percentage of our students participating. Candidates must satisfy the admissions requirements for each program separately and apply to each separately. Much like BYU Law, the MPA program at the Marriott School of Management is highly competitive for acceptance. 

It is indeed a high achievement for students to complete these rigorous and highly competitive graduate degree programs at BYU Law. It usually represents 7-8 years of higher education. In rare cases, students may complete their undergraduate degree in less than four years. The JD program at BYU Law is a minimum of three years after an undergraduate program, with an additional year for a joint degree. The recognition that Sala has received for this achievement is well deserved."