Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Belonging

Every conversation I have with my grandmother, who is 97 and lives alone in an apartment in the Bronx (the proverbial Jewish grandmother who still makes the best chicken soup ever), ends with me saying, “I’ll talk to you tomorrow;” and her answering, “Please god, I should live so long.”

I have the same conversation with my first year students around this time of year. “Don’t worry,” I say, “it will be much easier next year.” They answer: “if I’m still here.” I wonder if the whole first year experience is about whether students feel that they belong at law school. Law school is a major decision, and one that sets you on a clear, defined path. This is writing, “I want to be a lawyer when I grow up” in ink and not crayon. (Practicing law is not the only option a student has with a law degree, but I think a lot of students fresh out of college see it that way.)

Unlike European university systems, we don’t really ask students to make big decisions about their future until they graduate from college. We do require some forethought, i.e.: you shouldn’t necessarily choose philosophy as a major if you want to be a structural engineer (and I am by no means certain that this is entirely true…). But, for the most part, coming to law school may be the first decision a student makes about a concrete future. And that is scary.

I think first year law students spend a lot of time contemplating their decision: what if I made a mistake? What if I am not as smart as everyone has told me so far? What if I can’t do this? What if I hate law school? Perhaps, first year law students wonder most often, “do I belong here?” And sadly, they see their first year exams as the oracle that will answer all their fearful questions. But, exams are not the answer. They are merely a tool and never the finished product.

The first year of law school is the hardest for a number of reasons. We ask students to learn a new language and then become extremely fluent in it. We assign thousands of pages of reading in this new language and expect them to not only remember it all, but derivatively use it to answer other questions. Most of all, we ask students to go months and months without feedback on their progress, and then evaluate almost the entire academic year on the basis of a three hour exam. This is particularly difficult when you question everyday whether attending law school was the right choice. There are very few external cues to affirm a student’s choice to come to law school

Another factor in the mix is money. A law student, even one who does not continue beyond the first year, may have accrued a tremendous amount of debt. I remember, during my first year, asking myself exactly how smart could I be to pay someone to torture me and then pay interest for years and years on top of that. Not so much smart, I thought.

The reality is that there will be students who won’t be here next year. I can’t say every student makes it through their first year, but most will. And to the students who I will see next year, I say this, “It will be better. I promise.” I do remember vividly, at the beginning of my second year, feeling like I owned the place.  And now that I’ve paid back most of the loans, maybe I do. (ezs)

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