May 11, 2016

Law students mentor Boys and Girls Club members

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A project with the Boys and Girls Club of Carbondale is giving Southern Illinois University School of Law students a chance to introduce young people to life skills and the wide range of careers within the legal profession. 

For the past five weeks, law school students have met weekly with youths between 11 and 18 years old to discuss a variety of topics: college and careers; privacy; introduction to law; and voting. A few days prior to the sessions, first- and second-year law students meet to decide on the topic and how best to present it. The classes meet Thursday afternoons at the Boys and Girls Club and last about one hour. 

“This is an early opportunity for youths to begin utilizing life skills and gain interest in a career path,” Mike Ruiz, assistant dean for career services and special projects, said. “The earlier we can talk to someone and plant the seed and the idea, the better. Students need time to think about what they have to do in school now to reach their goals. They need time to build a foundation of knowledge and skills.” 

Students recently met to discuss how to best present ideas that involve personal finance and the importance of saving money and spending wisely. The group will use simulated cellular telephone purchases, and then plug in associated costs involving service plans and other features. The hope is that the youths realize that just buying a phone is not the only cost involved, and that they must plan according to their individual budgets they receive during the activity. 

Timothy J. Woemmel, a first-year law student from Jefferson City, Mo., participated in an earlier activity involving elections. The activity involved showing kids not only the importance of voting, but that today’s voters at one point were disenfranchised based on factors including age, gender, race, whether they were property owners, and how that impacted the country’s history. 

“It was really fulfilling to see their eyes opened up when they realized that not everybody in this country had the opportunity to vote at various times in our history,” Woemmel said. 

SIU’s program is based on one started in the early 1970s by students at Georgetown University Law Center to teach high school students in the District of Columbia about law and the legal system. SIU also has it as a part of the law school’s pro bono requirement, where students must complete 35 hours of approved pro bono work prior to graduation. The work is law related, uncompensated, supervised by an attorney and not for academic credit. The SIU School of Law was the first in the state to create the pro bono requirement. 

Tina Carpenter, director of operations for the Boys and Girls Club, sees the program as a “win-win situation” for the organization, the law school and the university. 

Club members learn about legal careers through the various topics, build relationships with law students “and see their own potential to be a law student or at the very least a college student studying a career of their choice.” Law students share their passion and career aspirations, and the university is building the potential for future students and relationships with community agencies, Carpenter said. 

“The hope is that this will be a pipeline of engaging youths as young as fourth grade to learn more about careers in the law profession and not only being an attorney,” she said.  “Career exploration needs to start young so that the youths can start planning how they will get to their dream. If youths start setting goals and have the assistance of mentors as to what steps do they need to take to meet those goals, their chances of success are greater.” 

The program will continue this summer, and Ruiz would like to see it expand to other communities and schools. 

Kacey Eisenhauer, a second-year law student from Du Quoin, said she was excited about her opportunity to meet with the youths. She was part of the inaugural group that discussed college and career paths, examining with club members their career goals and the level of education it takes to accomplish them. 

Eisenhauer, who is considering criminal law when she graduates, said she was looking for something to do through the law school “that would make a difference in the surrounding communities.” 

“I believe we achieved our goal, which was to spark interest in the kids and to get them thinking about their futures,” she said.