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USC student helping middle school students

Constitutional Scholars Pipeline brings law to life

One Friday a month the University of South Carolina School of Law welcomes 40 of the youngest law students you’ll ever meet. They arrive by bus just before noon, shuttled to campus from middle schools across the Richland One School District.

Welcome to the law school’s Constitutional Scholars Pipeline Program, which pairs seventh and eighth graders with USC law students who teach them about the law and coach them for a moot court. Started in 2013 as part of a Liberty Fellowship by former USC law professor and associate dean Danielle Holley-Walker, the service program is now run by assistant professor of law Claire Raj.

“There’s some substantive learning, but I’m most concerned with exposure, exposure, exposure,” says Raj, who previously ran a similar program at Howard University. “I want them to be at USC, I want them to see the law school, I want them to meet our students and get excited about higher education.”

Over the course of the program, the middle school students learn the basic principles of constitutional law and courtroom procedure, how to apply facts to a case and a little bit of public speaking. At each session, they also pick up a few handy new words.

I want them to be at USC, I want them to see the law school, I want them to meet our students and get excited about higher education.

Claire Raj, assistant professor of law, director of the Constitutional Scholars Pipeline Program


“We expose them to the language of the law,” says Raj, who has devoted much of her career to child advocacy. “It gives them a little bit of an edge and makes them feel like they are part of the legal community once they start to use terms like ‘plaintiff’ and ‘defendant.’”

Of course, the program also serves another critical function. All four of the participating middle schools have largely minority enrollment, and as Raj explains, the program is intended as a diversity pipeline.

“We’re trying to reach kids who don’t generally have as much access to the law school and the legal profession,” she says. “We want them to see what law school is like, get some experience and hopefully, if it interests them, to realize this is something they can pursue.”

 

USC student working with middle school students

Meet Your Mentors

To maximize one-on-one time between mentors and mentees, the 40 middle school students are paired up with 40 mentors — including law students like Cameo Joseph, Kinteshia Scott and Justin Montgomery, who look at these kids and see themselves, only younger.

“I originally came to law school with the idea that I wanted to work with juveniles and that’s still something I want to do,” says Montgomery, who attended USC as an undergrad and is now in his second year of law school. “I can relate to them, coming from a school like the schools they come from. Where I grew up, nobody knew anything outside of Sumter. This puts you in a position to really help make a difference in somebody’s life.”

Joseph, a Greenville native now in her third year of law school at Carolina, feels much the same way. As she explains, she never had a mentor when she was in middle school and wishes she had. “I kind of floated through life and, luckily, I landed here,” she says. “I could have very easily landed somewhere less positive. There’s a tremendous difference that can be made by helping kids figure out what they want to do at an early age, even if it’s not the law.”

The mentors, for their part, get paid in personal satisfaction.

“Last year, I had two mentees, and I loved them both very dearly,” says Scott, a second year law student from Charlotte and USC alumnae. “One of them I became very close to — I saw so much of myself in her, that quiet, nerdy girl who wasn’t very confident. But by the end of the program she would stand up and articulate her thoughts. I just thought, ‘It’s taken me until law school to do that, and to see her accomplish that in two semesters is just amazing’.”

By the end of the program — I’m gonna cry — she said I was someone she looks up to. It’s just a really awesome experience. I had never really worked with kids before, but to have that experience? There was no way I wasn’t going to do it this year.

Cameo Joseph, third-year Carolina law student


Joseph nods as she listens to her classmates. There’s a common thread to their stories, and it’s one of the main reasons so many of them come back to volunteer again.

“At the beginning of the course last year we did a worksheet where they had to name a person they admire or look up to, and my mentee couldn’t come up with anyone,” she says. “By the end of the program — I’m gonna cry — she said I was someone she looks up to. It’s just a really awesome experience. I had never really worked with kids before, but to have that experience? There was no way I wasn’t going to do it this year.”

 

students presenting

May It Please the Court

The kids who participate in the Constitutional Scholars Pipeline Program are chosen by their school administrators. Some are shy, some are more outgoing, but watch them pour in on the first day, watch them participate in a series of ice breakers led by the law students, watch them start to bond with their assigned mentors and you can see it on their faces — they all want to be there.

To maintain that interest over the long haul, the program focuses on legal cases relevant to students their age — cases involving cyber-bullying, search and seizure and the limits of free speech in a school environment.

They ask good questions: ‘Why do we use this particular word?’ ‘Why do I have to say, “May it please the court?”’ They really are eager to learn.

Amanda Harding, second-year Carolina law student


“The main case that they learn about is a first amendment case called Tinker v. Des Moines,” says Raj. “The holding in that case is, ‘If speech materially and substantially disrupts the classroom, then schools can limit it.’ To hear the kids get up there and use legal terms like that — words that they don’t use in their everyday life — is pretty great. It takes a while to get there, but they do get there. And that’s what these guys are there to help them with.”

But mentor Amanda Harding, a second-year law student from Cypress, Texas, gives as much of the credit to the kids. “They’re really curious,” she says. “They ask good questions: ‘Why do we use this particular word?’ ‘Why do I have to say, “May it please the court?”’ They really are eager to learn.”

That enthusiasm is shared by the other mentors and by Raj, who looks forward to the kids’ arrival each month and then watches with keen interest as her students work one-on-one with their mentees.

“Right now, it’s one of my favorite things about my job,” says Raj. “When I leave those Friday sessions, as corny as it sounds, my heart feels full. I walk out feeling like I did something good today. It will take your breath away.” 


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