Professor Kim Connolly teaches at the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic. Photos: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki/University at Buffalo.

Most of them haven’t checked into their flights to Puerto Rico yet but the students from the University at Buffalo School of Law who are providing legal services to the island’s residents say their legal paths have already been changed forever as a result.

“Since I joined, my feelings and my state of mind has gone from despair and sadness to a sense of hope and purpose,” said Jonathan Reyes-Colon. “I have met wonderful people who have looked at my country as I look at it, with the same kindness, the same heart, the same willingness not only to help but to tell the world about who we are, Puerto Ricans.”

Reyes-Colon, who left Carolina, Puerto Rico, for his Buffalo education said that before Hurricane Maria his two worlds “didn’t really overlap in any significant way.” That changed when he was selected as one of 10 students to participate in the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic.

Related story: Jonathan Reyes-Colon: His 2 Worlds Have Come Together

The six-credit course immerses students in topics such as disaster relief, climate justice and foreclosure prevention. Students then take a 10-day trip to Puerto Rico—financed by money collected by alumni—to work as supervised attorneys and return home to write about the legal obstacles for the island’s most vulnerable residents.

“I think this could be the beginning of a wonderful, long-lasting relationship between the two worlds that make up who I am; two worlds that are suddenly not so far apart anymore,” he said.

The Buffalo law school is one of many working with the University of Puerto Rico to bring brigades of student lawyers to the hurricane-ravaged island. But what professor Kim Diana Connolly says is different about the Buffalo effort is that students won’t be able to soon forget about the island’s residents when they return home. That’s when they will be writing policy papers and offering their findings to legislators and interest groups.

The students in the clinic have been meeting six hours a day for five weeks to prepare for the trip. They have been taught about the differences between common and civil law, the availability of clean air and clean water programs and the impact of trauma. They have discussed how to prevent foreclosures, deal with FEMA and provide elder care.

Connolly, who has been teaching legal clinics since 1999 and is vice dean for Advocacy and Experiential Education and director of Clinical Legal Education, said the group jelled remarkably quickly and it has transformed them. She said she’s sure that their futures will be changed forever.

“Students have recognized a new part of themselves, a new part of what it means to be a lawyer,” she said. “Our plan and hope is to offer this clinic in the future so that future UB law students can continue the work of building a resilient Puerto Rico.”

The students are equally as enthusiastic.

“To me, it didn’t seem like a choice, but a sense of duty. There are American citizens out there that are not receiving the response that they should be. If I can do anything as an individual, why wouldn’t I?” said Elizabeth David, a second-year law student who has dedicated her education to social justice and social policy.

Suzanne Starr, a second-year law student, said she was at first nervous about the responsibility. But now that she’s attended the classes she’s ready to leave on Jan. 21 for the 10-day trip.

Clinic students Suzanne Starr, left, and Siedah Gibson-Laurencin.

“My focus in law school is access to justice and I’m very interested in developing sort of a personal tool kit that I can take with me where people need access to justice or are exploited and this is a way to start to build this tool kit,” she said.

Her policy paper is going to be on foreclosure defense. But she doesn’t know what the paper will say because she’s reserving judgment until she can talk to experts on the ground.

“We see ourselves not as helpers or fixers but as servants. I don’t think I have any business making policy proposals until I’ve been there,” she said.

But is such a short trip enough to make a difference when so many people need legal help?

“A week is not enough,” Connolly said. “Of course a week is not enough.”

But she told the starfish story. A young child is throwing starfish who washed up after a storm back into the ocean. She has been doing this for some time when a man approaches her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish.”

After a pause, she tosses another one back into the ocean and replies, “Well, I made a difference to that one!”

“Of course we can make a difference for some people,” Connolly said. “This is the starfish story. We’re going to touch the lives of some people.”

Student Jonathan Reyes-Colon participated in the clinic from Puerto Rico.

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