While some high school students have spent their summer by the pool, a group of ambitious would-be law students learned the virtues of a career in law through a new Rutgers summer academy offered by the Office of Summer and Winter Sessions at Rutgers-New Brunswick. Rutgers Law School led the two-week, Pre-College Summer Law Academy for interested high-school students. Both intensive and exhaustive, it gave attendees not only a real idea of what the law is, and what paths it opens up, but whether or not they may want to pursue them.
“I saw a courtroom for the first time when I was about 10, and it really impressed me,” says David Holman, 16, one of four Asbury Park High School students taking the course. “Everyone was so fluent and conducted themselves so easily; it really got me thinking about becoming a lawyer. So I think this course will give me a lot of insight into how to approach my goal, and even what kind of lawyer I want to be. Do I want to be a prosecutor? A defense attorney? It’s a really cool opportunity.”
An opportunity, but also a commitment. During a summer when other Jersey teens are – finally – able to go down the shore again or just chill, these ambitious students study torts and contracts. “I’ve already told friends and family, for those two weeks, I’m going to need all the time I can get,” Holman says. “There’s going to be a lot of information to soak up.”
Making it easier for many, financial aid helped to cover the $999 cost. It certainly made a difference at Asbury Park High School, which had all four students who applied to the program win scholarships.
“They could not have financed it themselves, so we were thankful there were scholarships, and a lot of support from the district,” says Myrna Velez, a veteran Asbury Park High educator and originator of its Law and Public Safety Academy. “We have amazing expectations, and our students rise to meet them, but a program like this affords them opportunities they would not normally have.”
Offered online through the Division of Continuing Studies from July 26-August 5, and taught by Rutgers Law School professors, student teaching assistants and guest lecturers, classes covered everything from human rights to gun control. There were lessons on the Constitution and the Supreme Court, immigration law and sanctuary cities, as well as the chance to participate in a mock trial.
Pre-College Law Program Fosters Diversity
Although the course was open to any interested high school student – applications came from as far away as North Carolina – Rose Cuison-Villazor, Interim Dean of Rutgers Law School, was particularly happy to see diverse and disadvantaged communities in New Jersey well represented.
“The law school is fostering pipelines to legal education for high school students, particularly students who might face barriers to college and legal education,” Cuison-Villazor says. “In many communities, students don’t even know anyone who went to law school. It’s important to show them this is obtainable.”
For many students, the only image they may have of attorneys are the white actors they see on TV. Yet during this course, one of the people they’ll meet on Zoom is Cuison-Villazor, the first Asian-American law female dean at Rutgers and the first Filipina-American law dean in the country.
“In some ways, you wish you didn’t have to still say ‘first this,’ ‘first that,’” she admits of her breakthrough appointment. “But I do feel privileged and honored. And I think it’s important to name these firsts, to acknowledge them, because visibility is important. Growing up, I never thought I’d become a lawyer. I certainly didn’t think I’d become a law professor, or dean.”
Cuison-Villazor, who has two teenagers herself, says she designed the program to be challenging, but manageable. Although there is a lot of material to cover, she did not give the students 50-page reading assignments to plow through, which is typical in law school.
“I really created the program to expose the students to different ways a law degree can help, and what it can lead to,” she explains. “The typical model is that lawyers go into litigation, and work for a law firm, non-profit organization or the government. But there are other paths. Some end up doing transactional and corporate law work. Others engage in negotiation and alternative dispute resolution. Some use their JD to do public policy work. Others engage in lobbying. And, many, like me, end up as legal scholars and law professors."
The four Asbury Park High students who attended already have their own big dreams.
“Three of them are looking to be attorneys,” says Velez. “The fourth wants to be a federal agent, and has since she was in eighth grade. I’m very grateful to Rutgers for this program. Most of our students are economically disadvantaged. Many of them are the children of immigrants, or immigrants themselves. When I called to tell these students they’d been accepted, they and their parents were both in tears.”
Most, like Holman, will probably end the two weeks already thinking of college, and law school, and maybe even imagining their first opening argument. But whatever their ultimate careers, Cuison-Villazor hopes they walk away from the course as something perhaps even more important: Critical thinkers.
“Critical thinking is an essential skill, whether or not one goes to law school and whatever one chooses to do,” Cuison-Villazor says. “I want the students to be able to read the text of a law or a case and ask not only what it really means but also why the law is there in the first place or why the court decided it, in that particular way."