Real-World Learning

New Program Creates Community Among Pre-Law Students of Color

by Rachel Kipp

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LEAD students Damaris Gimenez '23 (left) and Daniella Campos '23 (right) at a lecture by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro in October 2019.

Daniella Campos ’23, an international relations major, has long been interested in how politics work and how countries interact with each other. When she was in high school, Campos started exploring her interest through a legal lens, reading more about the court system and individual cases.

This year, she took a seminar on “Law, Student Liberties and the Supreme Court,” and it became clear how her interests could become a future career.

“That class literally made me start thinking about a career in law and how much I’m starting to love it,” Campos says. 

She has found a community of like-minded students through Saint Joseph’s new Law Exploration Advancing Diversity (LEAD) program, which connects students of color who are interested in legal careers with career advising, networking opportunities and resources to navigate the law school application process. The program is a partnership between SJU’s Center for Inclusion and Diversity and the Pre-Law program. 

“This program will be able to help me gain more knowledge and more resources than someone who is first-generation and a person of Mexican descent would have been able to access had they not had this program,” Campos says.

The idea to start the program came from a desire to formalize existing efforts to ensure that SJU students of color who were interested in pursuing law school were being connected to pre-law advisors on campus, says Natalie Walker Brown, M.S., director for inclusion and diversity educational achievement. 

Around the time those discussions began, Susan Liebell, Ph.D., associate professor of political science and pre-law advisor, attended a conference and heard some sobering statistics about minority representation in the legal field. While many U.S. law schools have increased their minority enrollment in recent years, those numbers aren’t reflected in the legal field as a whole. Law360’s 2019 Diversity Snapshot report found that only 20% of attorneys and just 9% of partners at surveyed law firms identified as men and women of color.

“This is a societal issue — we need lawyers from different backgrounds and we need all different communities to be represented,” says Liebell, who teaches the seminar that Campos took this year. “Lawyers represent a certain kind of leadership in the U.S. The law should be implemented by all of us on all sides.” 

At the conference Liebell also heard about a Rutgers University program that begins working with students interested in law in middle school and provides mentoring and support through law school. She, Walker-Brown and Christine Falcone, assistant director of the Career Development Center, saw an opportunity for Saint Joseph’s to do similar work with current students -- and also to bring together resources for pre-law and minority students that already existed on campus. 

This is a societal issue — we need lawyers from different backgrounds and we need all different communities to be represented."

Susan Liebell, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Political Science

They decided to recruit a group of freshmen to pilot the program with the idea that the group could build a community together over four years. The roster currently includes 13 students, all women. LEAD will expand next year with a new group of freshmen, while the initial group will continue and build on their experiences from this year.

“They started on campus together and they will leave together, as a group that is having a shared experience,” Liebell says. “We wanted them to feel not just that they had us, but that they had each other.”

The date that organizers chose for LEAD‘s kickoff event ended up being the same as former Secretary of State Dr. Condoleezza Rice’s recent lecture. So they decided to change plans and attend the lecture as a group and have dinner afterward. 

“[At dinner] they definitely took a feminist approach to examining and critiquing her being referred to as ‘Condi’ instead of ‘Secretary Rice,’” Walker Brown says. “That really got the conversation going — it wasn’t strictly a law school conversation; it was about their identities and how they related to Condoleezza Rice and how they navigate their experience on campus and in the world.”

In addition to attending events and lectures together, LEAD students have also worked with Falcone on polishing their resumes and identifying summer internship opportunities. They’ve met with Saint Joseph’s alumni who went on to legal careers to talk about navigating law school as students of color. Later this month, they’ll tour Temple University’s Beasley School of Law. 

"The most impactful experience has been the dinners with current law students. There is no better way to find out what law school is going to be like than hearing it from students who are currently in it," says Alaina Head, a criminal justice major. "They gave us a perspective that we would not have had otherwise, and I am extremely grateful for that. Along with that, we were able to make lasting connections with these students who could turn into mentors in the future."

Darynn Minus-Vincent, a business intelligence and analytics major and sprinter on the Saint Josephs’ track team who joined LEAD this semester, says meeting with Falcone helped her plan for how she can juggle being an athlete with a pre-law course load.

“It was really helpful in planning out my four years and also having someone on campus to go over my resume,” she says.

... it wasn’t strictly a law school conversation; it was about their identities and how they related to Condoleezza Rice and how they navigate their experience on campus and in the world.”

 

Natalie Walker Brown, M.S.

Director for Inclusion and Diversity Educational Achievement

Falcone, Liebell and Walker Brown have also encouraged LEAD students to apply to Penn Law’s Outreach Program, which focuses on undergraduates who are ethnically diverse, first generation college students or come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Liebell says Saint Joseph’s typically has one or two students accepted to the Saturday program; this year, six students were chosen. Three are upperclassmen — Emma Woods, a junior history major; Lesley Reyes Pina, a sophomore criminal justice major; and Davashaye Jones, a senior sociology major — and three are freshmen participating in LEAD: Campos, Head and CeeCee Keppin, a political science major.

The students’ transportation to and from Penn, and other services for LEAD and other pre-law students on campus, are funded through Saint Joseph’s Law Alumni Endowment Fund, Liebell says.

Even if the students don’t ultimately choose law school, Falcone says the goal is to provide them with skills and networking opportunities that will help in any career. Because students interested in law don’t have to pursue a particular major, LEAD also provides a space where they can build relationships and support each other.

“Not all of them are going to go to law school,” Falcone says. “But for those who end up applying, we want them to navigate the process with all the same access to information. Looking at the law school shut-out rates, they’re higher for students of color because they don’t have access to the information or to the network or to the people that would have helped them navigate the process.” 

“Students of color need and desire to know they’re not alone and not standing by themselves,” Walker Brown adds. “Anything that allows students with even the smallest inkling that they might want to go to law school to say, ‘Huh, there are people who may be coming from a similar background, speaking the same language, having the same personal challenges and successes and we’re all working toward the same goal,’ helps to create a community across the board.” 

Liebell says meeting as a group has also made the students more comfortable with asking tough questions about the law school application process or determining whether a potential law school is truly committed to diversity. She notes that when Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro visited campus last fall, the majority of questions asked during the Q&A portion came from LEAD students. 

“We’re expecting a lot of these students,” Liebell says. “I want them to feel good about being a leader, being in the room and feeling entitled to this space, feeling like this is their space. I want them to meet with [Falcone] and feel like Career Development is their space. I want them to come to my office and talk about classes and feel my space is their space.” 

Campos said she and the other students in LEAD have made it a priority to share information about outreach programs or internship opportunities with the entire group so if one isn’t able to do it, the others have a chance to apply.

“We keep each other in the loop,” she says. “Instead of just one person succeeding everyone is successful as a whole.”