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Pepperdine | Caruso School of Law

Hands Across the Water

From mentoring youths in South Los Angeles to working for human rights in Uganda, Pepperdine students reach out to the community, nation, and world.

by Emily DiFrisco


Jordan High School, South Los Angeles

As a longtime elementary school teacher and curriculum developer, Monique Lee ('07) knows a lot about education in the United States. As former teacher in the Bronx, New York City, she has seen persistent educational inequity along socioeconomic and racial lines.

When underprivileged students drop out of high school, their chances of attending law school are increasingly slim, and the general answer offered in higher education is to recruit students earlier. At Pepperdine, associate dean Shelley Saxer has mulled over the problem and ways to help for the past nine years. She was thrilled when Monique approached her last fall about starting a mentoring program with David Starr Jordan High School in south Los Angeles.

In January, the school established the All Starr Student Mentor program with the goal of building relationships between at-risk high school students and law students. Fourteen law students and 25 high school students participated.

"At-risk high school students are in danger of failing out of school because they are unaware of opportunities available to them with regards to college and law school," says Monique. "With guidance and support from law-student mentors, high school students can form relationships with positive adults and begin to realize that college and law school are within their reach."

In addition to visiting Jordan High School, Monique and her team brought the students to Pepperdine for information sessions about attending law school and seminars on evidence and history, race, and the law taught by professors. The students put their evidence learning into practice by assuming the roles of attorneys for a mock trial in April.

Although Jordan High School teacher Jason Simon was not able to attend the mock trial, he noticed a difference in his students afterwards. "My students loved the program; after the mock trial, many said they wanted to grow up to be lawyers," he says. Jason, who teaches 11th grade English, has been involved with Pepperdine's All Starr Student Mentor program from its inception. Because he feels strongly about bridging the gap of America's educational inequity, he fully supports the Pepperdine-Jordan partnership. "I'll definitely stay involved in the program and help with whatever I can," says Jason.

The program will continue this fall in the form of a 1-unit course titled Youth Mentoring for Diversity. Monique, who currently works in the office of a Los Angeles public defender, will serve as an adjunct faculty member for the course. Work is also underway to develop a national audience for the program by becoming involved in the Wingspread Consortium, a group of law schoolcentered teams that includes educators, the bench, and the bar, all committed to improving the participation and success of diverse students in high school and college.


New Orleans, Louisiana

Law students Courtney Perdue and Carly Mc Keeman did not anticipate leaving California much during the academic year, but when a December service trip with Pepperdine University's Seaver College brought them to New Orleans to help with Hurricane Katrina cleanup, both women developed a passion for that community.

They organized a trip for law students and found backing from the school. "There was support from all levels of the University," Carly says. "We got money from an employee fund, from the dean, and from the president of the University." That support resulted in 19 law students having the means to help rebuild in New Orleans during spring break.

In the four-month lapse between their visits, Courtney and Carly expected to see improvement in the hurricane-affected areas but were surprised by the lack of change. "It doesn't make the news anymore, and people don't know how bad it is still," says Carly.

Other students who viewed the city for the first time post-Katrina were shocked by its condition—dead vegetation, boarded- up houses, and trees still draped with power lines. Student Rebecca Harkness says, "People can tell you over and over what it's like there but nothing compares to seeing it yourself. I'm so grateful Pepperdine supported us in going."

Working with Hilltop Church of Christ and InterAmerican Restoration Corporation, the Pepperdine group stayed in FEMA trailers and cleaned, painted, and helped rebuild houses, parks, and even a local courthouse.

Now entering their third year of law school, both Courtney and Carly are working to make the New Orleans service trip available again in the upcoming year.


Bangladesh and Uganda

As part of their initiatives in social entrepreneurship, Pepperdine's Palmer Center for Entrepreneurship and the Law sent three student interns to work with Grameen Bank in Dhaka, Bangladesh, this summer. Students Ian Davis, Amadea Goresh, and Jay Milbrandt worked with 2006 Nobel Peace Prize recipient and founder of Grameen Bank, Dr. Muhammad Yunus and learned about the bank's initiatives in the area of micro-credit.

Grameen Bank is built on the idea of helping the poorest people worldwide by loaning small amounts of money for business. Since its founding over 20 years ago, Grameen Bank has disbursed almost $6 billion in micro-loans, averaging under $100 per loan.

During their internships, the students traveled around Bangladesh and met the families who were micro-loan recipients. Ian, who has studied micro-finance previously, says it is an area that many people have heard about but nothing compares to seeing it firsthand. "You don't see how far three dollars— or even 50 cents—goes until you're there," he says.

Another group of students at Pepperdine, including Kevin Assemi, Elizabeth Eubanks, and Lizz Alvarez spent the summer pursuing worldwide human rights initiatives in Uganda through the Herbert and Elinor Nootbaar Institute on Law, Religion, and Ethics. Lizz clerked for the chief justice and Constitutional Court, where she helped local citizens learn their rights and gain access to justice.

From advising people of their basic rights in Uganda, to encouraging students in Los Angeles to attend college, Pepperdine students are reaching out to the community, nation, and world. "None of this would have been possible without the support of Pepperdine," says Lizz. "This school has afforded me opportunities in the field of human rights that I could only have imagined in my wildest dreams."