A young black woman and young white man are seen standing in a law school courtroom

Apsiring attorneys: First-year SIU School of Law students Myla Croft, left, and Noah Herndon are part of the school’s largest class in recent history. (Photo by Russell Bailey)

September 22, 2023

SIU School of Law celebrates large, diverse first-year class as it marks 50 years

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. — As the Southern Illinois University School of Law enters its second half-century, it celebrates a sizeable, diverse class of first-year students, and its mission of serving the public good established with the first class in 1973 remains critical.

That pledge helped attract first-year law students Myla Croft and Noah Herndon to be part of the Class of 2026, which is among the largest in recent history.

“I am very passionate about public service, so attending a school of law that focuses on serving the public good was one of my top priorities,” said Croft, who is from St. Louis. The 2022 Lincoln Academy of Illinois student laureate, University Honors Program student and McNair Scholar elected to stay in Southern Illinois to continue her education after she earned her degree in political science from SIU Carbondale in May.

“During my undergraduate years, I made many connections on campus, and over time, I fell in love with the community,” Croft said. “In addition, I wanted to obtain a good education, but I did not want to incur a lot of debt. I believe that the law school will help me reach my full potential and goals.”

Herndon, a St. Louis native who is from Aurora, Colorado, also chose the SIU School of Law for several reasons, including the ability to be closer to most of his family. His grandfather, retired federal judge David R. Herndon, is part of the law school’s second graduating class in 1977.

Herndon, who wants to work in family law, is particularly interested in SIU Law’s clinics focusing on domestic violence and juvenile justice.

“I want to pursue a law degree because I want to be able to help people who struggle with domestic violence,” said Hernon, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Regis University in Denver. “No one deserves to live in situations where they feel scared, trapped and hopeless. I want to be able to give the people trapped in these situations as best I can.”

Herndon said he’s honored to follow his grandfather’s path.

“I’ve looked up to him for as long as I can remember,” he said.

Bustling class

The law school features 110 first-year students, a 24% increase in first-year students from last year, is the most diverse class in more than a decade, and has attracted students from 19 states. The law school presently has 276 students.

Initiatives including the Diversity Prelaw Summer Institute, which brings high-achieving juniors and seniors from colleges around the country to Carbondale to gain insight on their legal careers, have helped with the growth. The law school also has 3+3 programs with Governor’s State University and Tougaloo College, where students can earn a bachelor’s degree and law degree in six years, and a memorandum of understanding with Stillman College, a historically Black liberal arts college in Alabama.

“We have taken the step to introduce ourselves to students who have not known about us in the past,” Dean Camille Davidson said, noting the work of the law school’s admissions department, increased recruiting efforts and re-engaged alumni. “We know that our strength is when we can bring people to campus.”

Davidson added that SIU’s admissions department “is made up of hardworking individuals who believe in the mission of SIU School of Law. Nothing happens by accident. It is only when we pay attention to issues that we are able to improve.”

She also noted the importance of recruitment, visits to feeder schools and the work of student ambassadors who travel to schools to also meet potential students. Davidson also travels. She is speaking this week at the 10th annual National HBCU Pre-Law Summit and Law Expo in Washington, D.C., and the law school will have a recruiting table there.

Prelaw Summer Institute pivotal

Croft said she enjoyed “being a Saluki” as an undergrad. She participated in the inaugural Diversity Prelaw Summer Institute in May 2022. It gave her an opportunity “to network with other students, attorneys, law faculty and learn more about the legal field.”  Receiving a $20,000 scholarship for completing the program was also a “significant factor” in Croft’s decision.

“I highly recommend the program to any student who is interested in learning more about law,” Croft said.

She wants to concentrate on immigration law and criminal law due to her desire “to represent those from underserved communities and be a voice for the voiceless.”

Starting ‘a journey’

Herndon and Croft each mentioned the trials that all first-year law students face. But they each said the faculty and staff are helpful and friendly, and want students to succeed.

“Law school is a journey,” she said. “I have found that it is a marathon and not a sprint. My first week of law school was like drinking out of a firehose. Now, I have a better understanding on how to navigate it. My classes are challenging, but manageable and enlightening. SIU School of Law is a small, close-knit community. I am looking forward to more new experiences, more networking and making the best out of my three years of law school.”

Herndon agreed, explaining he’s loved his experience so far.

“All of the professors are great at engaging with the class and making the course material fascinating to learn about. Getting cold-called can be a bit scary at first, but that fear goes away quickly,” he said. Herndon added his grandfather Judge Herndon, “offered a lot of great advice on all aspects of what to expect.” That included asking lots of questions in class to help make the material easier to understand.

“One of the first things he told me was that it would be difficult to find free time, but to make sure not to overwork myself. At the end of the day, you have to take care of your health in order to continue your studies,” Herndon said. “The most important advice he gave me was not to try and look at the cases as black and white, but as shades of gray; it’s OK not to always agree with the opinion of the court in the cases I read.”

Celebrating 50 years

The law school has several events planned to celebrate its 50 years. On Oct. 4, Jill Wine-Banks, a former Watergate prosecutor, will deliver the Hiram H. Lesar Distinguished Lecture at the law school. The law school will host a series of events during Homecoming weekend, Oct. 20-21, including a football tailgate and trivia night. Details are also being finalized for the 50th anniversary gala on March 23.