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Pre-law internship program to pilot in spring


By Lizzie Bjork     9/27/16 11:46pm

The School of Social Sciences and the School of Humanities are partnering to launch the Law, Justice and Society Scholars Program this spring, according to Alex Wyatt, the assistant director of the School of Social Sciences. Through workshops and internships, the program will provide an academic and professional background for students interested in law.

"It’s an experience that is equally academically and professionally focused," Wyatt said.

The program is committed to providing infrastructure both for students’ educational and professional developmental, Dean of the School of Social Sciences Antonio Merlo said.

"Pre-law was not as well developed [as pre-medicine], so I saw this as an amazing opportunity to provide a more structured environment that was collaborative across two schools," Merlo said.

According to Wyatt, the program’s structure is modeled after the Health, Humanism and Society Scholars Program that caters to pre-medical students. It will include a professional and academic internship, coursework conducted as a series of workshops and participation in the Rice Undergraduate Research Symposium.

While both the School of Humanities and the School of Social Sciences currently offer professional internships, including some that are focused on law, Wyatt said Rice has not previously had the student interest or breadth to create such a structured program.

Having the internships spread across two schools made them difficult for students to find, especially when they are involved in a program that spans both schools, according to Carl Caldwell, co-director of the Politics, Law and Social Thought minor and a faculty sponsor for the Law, Justice and Society Scholars Program.

"It's really important that they set up a framework to develop and present internships for both schools,” he said.

Since legal jobs typically do not actively recruit or hold information sessions through the Center for Career Development the way other fields do, students often lack guidance when looking for legal internships, said Bailey Tulloch, co-president of Legalese, the undergraduate pre-law society.

“I am really looking forward to seeing how the Law, Justice and Society Scholars Program will help us...find even more avenues through which students can explore the legal field,” she said.

In addition to centralizing existing internship programs like the Rice Judicial Internship Program, which has been around for about nine years, the Law Justice and Society Scholars Program will also match students with programs that fit their interest, Nyeva Agwunobi, School of Humanities Manager of Student Programs, said. It will also provide coursework to help students maximize their experience.

"This isn't just me working at a family friend's law firm," Agwunobi said. "This is an academically focused, year-long structured program.”

For next semester’s launch, the new programs will include environmental law, judicial law, human rights work, legal aid and immigration, Wyatt said.

For the first semester, the research component of the program is optional, while internships and courses will last one semester and award three credit hours in either humanities or social sciences, Agwunobi said. Each program thereafter will involve a year-long internship and related coursework.

Courses will take the form of workshops, and they will be taught by Rice faculty from the School of Humanities and the School of Social Sciences whose research corresponds to each student’s interest, Wyatt said.

What students learn in the workshops are general principles of legal work that serve them regardless of their specific interests, Merlo said.

"We are teaching you something that is valuable as a pedagogical tool, but at the same time we are combining that with some real world experience in the field, " Merlo said. “We are going to try to give students a flavor [of real legal work] without losing track of the fact that we are still a university. We are not a vocational school."

Since a for-credit internship is an optional component of the minor, Caldwell said it is important to make sure the internships have a substantive content in both an academic and professional sense.

“I think [experiential learning] is a nice idea, but unless you're really clear about the greater context, a lot of times its purpose can be lost,” Caldwell said.

According to Wyatt, most internship opportunities will hosted by alumni and organizations who are already partnered with Rice, and the program will ensure that hosts are committing the time and professional mentorship the program expects.

"This is one of the only undergraduate law internship programs in the country,” Wyatt said.

At its core, Merlo said the Law, Justice and Society Scholars Program moves professional development one step earlier, better preparing students for their careers as well as helping them make sure they really are interesting in pursuing law.

"What we are doing at Rice is innovative in the sense that we are trying to provide undergraduate students with opportunities that are typically provided to graduate students,” Merlo said.

For the launch, the program is aiming for a minimum of 36 students and expecting an average of two to three students per faculty member.

“If the need for this kind of programming in law turns out to be more like 70 or 80 people, we are committed to finding the resources necessary for the full launch in the fall [of 2017]," Wyatt said.

The application is accessible through beginning Wednesday, Sept. 28, and it is due by Oct. 16.

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