The Suffolk University learning environment extends far beyond the classroom, and many students choose to serve the public as they explore new paths and gain valuable experience.
From engaging in service projects through alternative winter and spring breaks to taking on legal cases for clients in need, Suffolk students spend tens of thousands of hours in service each year, working to improve lives, expand opportunity, and promote social justice. Here we present a few of their stories.
Easing the way to citizenship
Law student Elsa Lopez’s efforts to help immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship holds special meaning for her, as her father went through the process of becoming a naturalized citizen when she was 5 years old.
“I’ve always been aware of how difficult the process is, especially if there’s a language barrier,” said Lopez, who in summer 2015 served as a legal intern with Project Citizenship—a nonprofit agency that helps ease the path to U.S. citizenship for legal permanent residents.
Among her clients was an older couple from Colombia. The wife had failed the citizenship exam due to a language barrier, and Lopez, who is bilingual, had helped procure a waiver for the pair. Lopez was pleased to learn that they had received a letter approving their citizenship application when she returned this fall to continue her pro bono service.
“I’m very grateful to work with Project Citizenship as it is a rewarding and fulfilling experience to help make a positive difference in people's lives by assisting them with their citizenship applications,” said Lopez. I enjoy working as a volunteer to give back and empower individuals from immigrant communities get one step closer to achieving the American Dream."
“Having Elsa Lopez, a bilingual and capable law student, in the office throughout her summer internship allowed us to provide information, screen potential applicants, and prepare hundreds of applications over the course of the summer,” said Project Citizenship Executive Director Veronica Serrato, whose organization this year submitted 648 citizenship applications for immigrants from over 57 countries of origin.
“Elsa, as one of our three hundred volunteers, is critical to our ability to provide free services to all we serve,” she said. “The Suffolk pro bono program has consistently sent Project Citizenship capable law students to intern during the school year and summers. We simply could not provide the volume and quality of free assistance without the Suffolk student community.”
While the internships are unpaid, Suffolk Law provided a summer stipend for Lopez through its Suffolk Public Interest Law Group Fellowship program.
Members of the Law School community perform more than 8,000 hours of pro bono service during the academic year. By encouraging pro bono service, the Law School aims to ensure that graduating students will enter the legal profession with a sense of responsibility and commitment to others.
Selflessness begets happiness
Sheikh "Nash" Nasher’s house burned down when he was a junior in high school, and he found after moving in with his grandmother that he had no TV, games, or books left to occupy his time when he wasn’t in school or working his shifts at Dunkin Donuts.
“I had nothing to do, so I got involved with volunteer work,” said Nasher. “It made me happy, and I met other people. I got back some of the happiness that was lost after the fire.”
As he entered the University this past fall, a Freshman Orientation mentor steered Nasher to Suffolk’s Ram Academy program and a Habitat for Humanity service trip to Rhode Island. From there he entered the Center for Community Engagement’s Service Challenge, which awards points to students who take part in volunteer projects and special events. Nasher came out on top during the two-week challenge and won tickets to a Bruin’s game, but, more importantly, he decided to commit to two service areas he had discovered through the experience.
Nasher now visits Christopher’s Haven on Tuesdays to spend time with young cancer patients, and he is the service leader for the Paulist Center’s Wednesday Night Supper Club, where a team of volunteers serves hot meals to more than 100 hungry or homeless guests.
As service leader for the supper club, Nasher recruits five-to-seven students to serve meals, restaurant style, to the guests; handles paperwork; and leads student volunteers in reflecting on their perceptions about the activity and how it relates to their growing civic responsibility.
Reflection is an important part of service learning, because it encourages students to examine their individual perceptions as they develop a sense of civic responsibility, said Carolina Garcia, director of service learning.
“Reflection gives students a chance to pause and really think about what their service means to them personally, but also how it impacts society and furthers social justice,” said Garcia, who oversees a center that provides the community with more than 49,000 hours of student service per year, working with 63 community partners.
Class work renews service commitment
Community service also had been part of Caley McCaslin’s life before she entered college, but it was serendipity that spurred a renewal of her volunteer efforts. McCaslin got involved after enrolling in a challenge course required of students in the Sawyer Business School honors program.
“The only one to fit my schedule was the community service course,” said McCaslin, a senior Marketing major and co-captain of the women’s soccer team. When the course lecturer, Center for Community Engagement Associate Director Tim Albers, learned that McCaslin had worked with childhood cancer patients in the past, he steered her to a leadership role with the Christopher’s Haven program.
She is now project manager for students volunteering to spend time with children being treated for cancer at area hospitals. The students’ weekly visits to the Christopher’s Haven community allow the children’s parents to have some much-needed free time away from the clinical setting.
“I love it,” said McCaslin, who plans to expand her community engagement activities now that the soccer season is over. “It’s wonderful to see how happy the kids are when we share activities with them. It distracts the whole family from what they’re going through.”
Promoting a civic right
Coursework also solidified Elainy Mata’s commitment to service, and she has served as a city of Boston poll worker four times since she enrolled in an Introduction to American Democracy course taught by Professor Rachael Cobb, who requires students to serve as poll workers or perform other civic service.
Mata had undergone mandatory training before her first experience at the polls in 2012 but found she learned even more from the other poll workers, mostly senior citizens, who were election veterans. They were together throughout a 14-hour day that included setup, checking voters in, counting and sorting ballots, and cleanup.
“I really liked it, and I got a lot of advice,” she said. “The other people were in their sixties through eighties, and I learned from them.” She worries about what will happen when this group retires from poll service. “Who else will do it?”
Her initial poll worker experience pointed up some problems. She was the only bilingual poll worker at the Roxbury site, and she felt that the polling location, which served six precincts, was understaffed.
So Mata is taking her efforts a step further and working to focus more attention on elections as president of the Suffolk University Polling Club, which she founded, and by joining in poll worker recruitment and voter registration efforts on campus. She is majoring in Government, with a minor in Broadcast Journalism, and aims to work as a political reporter or campaign consultant after graduation...
Legal win benefits family
Social Security is the safety net that many people depend on in times of need. So when a high school student had to quit school to support his family because his disabled, single mother was denied benefits, the call went out to the Suffolk Law Health Law Clinic. The Law School operates 10 in-house legal clinics that each year provide legal representation to hundreds of people who couldn’t otherwise afford it while training students to be practice-ready.
“Our client had been unable to work and seeking benefits for a number of years without counsel,” said law student John J. White, who with cocounsel Amy Gelineau won a favorable decision for their client. She now will receive monthly Social Security Disability Insurance income of over $1,000 per month – and more than $30,000 in back benefits. She also will receive Medicare, another vitally important benefit.
The two students received the case assignment in early September, with a trial date of late October.
“This was day one, case one,” when the two third-year law students began their clinical work, said Gelineau. Both she and White have backgrounds in health care and intend to focus on health care law after graduation. And while the two were steeped in legal studies, this particular area of law was new to them.
“We didn’t know the relevant law, so we had to learn it,” said White.
And learn it they did, working closely with Professor Sarah Boonin, who provided feedback and guidance throughout the representation, including late nights and long weekends.
“I didn’t know I could work this many hours and still feel OK,” said Gelineau after months of juggling her studies, a job, and clinical work.
By Thanksgiving they had received word of the positive outcome for their client.
“Law is about the clients,” said White. “We actually got to help someone.”
“And her son will have a better quality of life as well,” said Gelineau.
Professor Boonin added, “There is no greater pleasure as a teacher than to see students navigate the uncertainty and challenges associated with live client representation, and to come out of the experience with enhanced skills and confidence.”
Students admitted to the Law School’s civil and criminal clinical programs represent clients under the direct supervision of experienced attorneys and Law School faculty.