Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Service-Learning: Who is Serving Whom?

For the past two years, I have been privileged to lead a group of third and fourth-year students at my law school, The University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law, on an alternative Spring Break immersion trip to study immigration law and policy on the United States-Mexico border. Originally conceived in 2006 by my amazing colleague, Professor Susan Waysdorf, as a seminar and practicum to address legal and social issues in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the course has evolved over the years to include service trips to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the Mississippi Delta region, and most recently Nogales, AZ/Nogales, Sonora, MX.

UDC School of Law is unique in several ways - we are a public university and an HBCU, with a small faculty and student body. Because most of our graduates enter government, public interest, or small firm practice after graduation, our curriculum emphasizes practical skills training - the heart of which is the requirement that all UDC students complete two 7-credit Clinics before graduation. We currently have 8 in-house Clinics, and it is likely that we will add to this number in the very near future. We also recently developed a Pathways to Practice model for our curriculum, in order to better assist our students in choosing their courses with an eye toward their preferred areas of law.

The service-learning seminar and practicum is not a mandatory part of the curriculum at UDC - however, the faculty who have been involved in designing and refining the course envision it as a "capstone" experience for our students. The course is only available to graduating third and fourth-year students who have already successfully completed their required Clinics, and in order to participate, they must write an essay explaining why they want to spend their last Spring Break in this manner, and what they hope to gain from their participation. In upcoming blog posts, I am going to reflect on my experience these past two years as the leader of the Arizona-Mexico trip (along with my Immigration Clinic co-teacher and LL.M. Fellow, Emily Torstveit Ngara) and share my thoughts on the value of this type of "capstone" experiential learning experience for law students.

In this post, I want to start with what I think is the core question at the heart of service-learning: who is serving whom? Are we, the students and professors, serving the migrants we met in the shelters, the soup kitchens, and community centers in Mexico? Were we serving the people of Tucson by providing brief legal services and know-your-rights presentations? Or were the people we came in contact with during our week on the border serving us - telling us their stories, letting us into their lives and modeling for us what it means to be a parent providing for his child, an activist working to better her community, or a humanitarian leaving water in the desert so that a life might be saved?

For me, service-learning in the law school curriculum challenges us to ask: what does it really mean to live a life of service, and how can we as lawyers and teachers inculcate these values in our profession? Although I certainly don't have the answers, I will - as promised - provide reflection in future posts about what I've learned so far.


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