Earlier this month, Fordham Law student Aminta Kilawan packed her bags and headed to the Dominican Republic for spring break. But rather than lounging on the beach for a week, she co-led six other students on a service project to examine human rights issues experienced by Dominicans of Haitian descent.
The Fordham University School of Law group joined dozens of other law students from New York in foregoing a week of relaxation in favor of what are called "alternative spring breaks." Their projects, which are spread throughout the world, often involve pro bono work or surveys of people who don’t have access to lawyers.
"It’s a means for us to practically apply what we learn in class in a way that’s meaningful," Kilawan said. "A lot of people who went on our trip have a strong interest in international human rights law, and there aren’t a lot of chances to do that in New York City."
Students typically pair with a local nonprofit or legal services group to reach underserved individuals facing complex legal issues in areas ranging from environmental law to immigration law and disaster law.
The work, students say, is a glimpse into careers in the public service, nonprofit or government sectors. In some cases, students can earn hours toward their 50-hour pro bono requirement before graduation.
"It’s a fabulous experiential learning process," said Hillary Exter, director of student groups at Fordham Law’s public interest resource center.
Two additional groups of Fordham students visited Haiti to look at post-earthquake rebuilding efforts and the West Bank to examine citizens’ access to clean water.
"Students are exposed to areas and issues in the world where there’s a tremendous amount of need and not enough investigation or lawyers doing that kind of work," she said.
The largest of the New York schools’ programs, Columbia Law School’s spring break "pro bono caravans," sent 85 students to 17 locations last week. Students in groups of about six each worked on migrant farmworker and detention issues in Florida; assisted American Indians on natural resource matters in Anchorage, Alaska; helped military personnel obtain enhanced veterans’ benefits in New Haven, Conn.; and visited a refugee camp in Amman, Jordan, to better understand the situations of future pro bono clients seeking asylum in the United States.
The trips were paid for through a combination of fundraising and financial backing from the school’s Social Justice Initiatives center, which helps students organize the projects and connect with local nonprofits.
Fordham Law’s Dominican Republic project was a hands-on look at international human rights issues, Kilawan said. Federal laws discriminate against citizens of Haitian descent by denying them birth certificates or official identification documents, called cedulas, even if they were born in the Dominican Republic. With the help of a local non-governmental organization, the students interviewed several members of the Haitian community to get information for a soon-to-be-launched advocacy campaign.
Kilawan, a 3L, said she was struck by the plight of a 21-year-old Dominican woman.
"This individual does have a Dominican birth certificate, but without a cedula, she cannot attend university, nor can she get legally married, nor can she apply for formal employment," Kilawan said. "She explained that the only thing she holds on to is hope."
Closer to home, several students are working on New York-based projects on the legal issues and rebuilding effort resulting from Hurricane Sandy.
Touro Law Center students, for example, are going door-to-door interviewing Long Island residents on their unmet, Sandy-related legal needs.
"Our students were doing Katrina work in New Orleans and Mississippi twice a year for the past several years, but this year we decided to redirect our efforts to Sandy," said Thomas Maligno, Touro Law’s director of pro bono. "But because of that our students developed a lot of experience in disaster relief."
A New York University School of Law group last week surveyed reconstruction workers in Coney Island, the Rockaways and Staten Island on legal issues they face such as adequate housing, access to healthcare, job security, fair pay and on-the-job safety.
Students using their spring breaks to give back also come from schools outside New York state. Last week, the New York Legal Assistance Group hosted five Harvard Law and two University of Southern California Gould School of Law students volunteering with Sandy victims in Coney Island and Staten Island. They spent last week helping with intake at legal clinics and visiting people’s homes to document damages for FEMA and insurance claims.
Melanie Berdecia, a 1L Harvard Law student who is from the Bronx and helped with NYLAG, said she has been particularly interested in issues surrounding recent immigrants, some of whom aren’t applying for disaster aid or seeking help because of language barriers or because they are undocumented.
"In law school I’ve learned how many free legal services are out there that people just don’t know about," Berdecia said. "It’s exciting to reach out to people who don’t know what’s available to them."
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