In 1967, an uprising in Newark, N.J., that left more than 700 people injured and 26 dead — part of a string of incidents referred to as the “long, hot summer of 1967” — sparked a conversation at Rutgers Law School: How could the school respond to the racial inequity that had ignited violence locally and across the country?
[Above: Participants in the Minority Student Program at Rutgers Law School’s Newark campus]
The next fall, 23 African American students walked into Rutgers Law — the first cohort in the newly formed Minority Student Program (MSP). Today, 50 years later, MSP boasts more than 2,500 alumni who hold positions ranging from U.S. district court judge to senator to executive director. And since that time, the program — which is a staple of both the Camden and Newark campuses — has expanded to serve all students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The plan, says Rhasheda Douglas, director of MSP at Rutgers’ Camden campus, was to ensure that more African American students were admitted into the law school so that when they graduated, they would return to their communities as leaders — and, she adds, that is exactly what happened. By 1971, African Americans accounted for 20 percent of the law school student body. In 2017, 34 percent of the entering class consisted of students of color.
MSP takes a proactive, multi-pronged approach to supporting students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Creating social support helps them navigate the law school experience, and mentoring and internship opportunities build networks that benefit them throughout their careers, Douglas says.
These two approaches are essential for students who are often the first in their families to attend college or law school. For Douglas and Yvette Bravo-Weber, assistant dean of the Newark campus MSP, this issue is something with which they both have personal experience.
“My parents only had grade school educations and spoke very little English,” says Bravo-Weber. “Although they loved and supported me, I had to navigate my education on my own, often without the support of educators who could have guided me.” Additionally, Douglas says she grew up in the inner city and was the first in her family to go to college and law school.
MSP provides academic support during the first semester of law school — the time period that Douglas says is often the most challenging as students are adjusting to the rigors of a legal education and the campus community. Incoming students learn practical skills, such as how to outline case briefings and prepare for exams. They are also assigned to study groups that often end up providing them much needed support throughout the entirety of their law school career.
In addition, MSP has a formal mentoring program that matches each student with an upperclassman teaching mentor and a professional mentor. These individuals not only provide emotional and academic support, but they are also the first step in creating a professional network that can inform the students about job opportunities and even provide them with potential leads for clients once they start practicing.
MSP participants have internship opportunities as well, which vary depending on which campus they attend. Newark MSP students have access to summer internships in private law firms, public interest organizations, and government agencies — the majority of which are paid. They can also receive academic credit for interning with judges.
Camden students receive assistance with applications for internships with organizations that aim to improve diversity and inclusion within the legal profession, such as the Philadelphia Diversity Law Group and the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel. Students who seek to complete a judicial internship during the summer following their first year of law school also qualify for a stipend.
Providing logistical and financial support for students to pursue these internship opportunities is a big part of closing the diversity gap in the legal profession, Douglas explains. She says that students from disadvantaged backgrounds often are not able to take unpaid summer positions because they don’t have other means of financially supporting themselves during that time. Because of this situation, they may miss out on experiences that could lead them to pursue clerkships after graduation.
Douglas says she has been meeting with federal and state court judges to discuss building the Camden judicial internship program so that “students from disadvantaged backgrounds have a better understanding of just how valuable a judicial internship and clerkship are to their legal career.” She also brings judges and former clerks to campus to speak with MSP students in the hopes that they will inspire more of them to seek clerkships postgraduation and thus help address the lack of diversity that currently exists among such positions.
While Douglas says it is difficult to quantify exactly how MSP has affected the wider legal profession — particularly outside of New Jersey — she has plenty of anecdotal evidence that the support the program provides is making a difference locally. Having thousands of alumni in leadership positions in private practices, government agencies, and public interest organizations is a huge leg up for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who are trying to break into the profession, she says.
Esther Salas, a U.S. district court judge who graduated from Rutgers Law in 1994, agrees that the connections students make in MSP are important. “It was camaraderie,” she’s quoted as saying in a program brochure. “From the professors to the administrators to your classmates, there was a critical sense that, together, anything is possible.”
Salas also expressed frustration at an issue Bravo-Weber cites as the biggest challenge faced by MSP: the perception that programs that support students from disadvantaged backgrounds and students of color are unnecessary, or even unfair. “MSP doesn’t give you the answers on the test,” Salas said. “It doesn’t tip the scales. For first-generation students, it gives them a fighting chance. MSP generates excellence.”
In order to diffuse these sentiments and ensure internal support for MSP, Bravo-Weber says she works hard to make sure that non-MSP students, faculty, and alumni are on board with the program so that MSP students “feel there is a larger community that recognizes and values them.”
This is a concept that hits close to home for both Bravo-Weber and Douglas — and drives their commitment to this work.
“[It’s about] watching someone be able to achieve their dreams and to go on continuing to pay it forward,” says Douglas. “To be able to experience that has … brought me a lot of joy, and I continue to want to help students … because they’re all talented and driven. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t have been admitted to law school.”
Alice Pettway is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article ran in our July/August 2018 issue.