More than 80 people gathered recently at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law as part of a new multilevel mentoring program that connects high school students with pre-law undergraduates, law students and local lawyers.
"One of the program's goals is to provide inspiration and guidance to high school students and their parents when the families and the communities may not provide many professional role models," said Charles Calleros, a professor at the College of Law who organized the mentoring effort.
"These are bright, hardworking students who nonetheless might not appreciate the academic and professional opportunities available to them or who might become discouraged before realizing their goals.
"Their student and attorney mentors provide examples of success to inspire them to stay on the academic track."
The four-tier mentoring program was created by the Hispanic National Bar Association, which launched it in September in several cities. Calleros is a member of the Association's national committee for the mentoring program, and he was determined to bring the HNBA program to Phoenix.
For several months, Calleros laid the foundation of the Phoenix program by working through student and professional organizations of which he is a member and which are affiliated with HNBA: the Chicano/Latino Law Student Association and Los Abogados. He then broadened the program to other students, attorneys and organizations, ensuring ethnically diverse representation in the program. Most of the high school participants are from the law magnet program at South Mountain High.
Jimmie Reyna, HNBA president, was so impressed with the efforts in Phoenix that he re-routed a trip to be able to attend the event, and he later appointed Calleros to the position of HNBA Vice-President for the region encompassing Arizona and Nevada.
Calleros said the program works for participants at each step of the ladder to the legal profession: high school students are exposed to information about college; pre-law students learn about the law school admission process and the importance of taking challenging classes, and law students get an inside view of the practice of law with their attorney mentors.
It's also a positive experience for law students to see how far they've come. "Law school is a very competitive environment, and positive feedback doesn't come in generous quantities," Calleros said. "Some very capable law students feel a little shell-shocked, but they are reminded of how talented and accomplished they are when they act as mentors and help younger students attempt to follow in the law students' footsteps."
In February, participants mingled over a pizza dinner sponsored by the Hispanic National Bar Foundation and two law firms. After dinner, they met for general information, then spent time in their groups getting to know each other. Many of the high school students were accompanied by their parents.
"It's important for high school students and their parents to see people like them who are lawyers and law students," Calleros said. "They think, 'If they can do that, then it's not out of reach for me, or for my child.' "
The program participants are expected to meet in their teams at least once each semester, and to call or e-mail each other when they need advice or have questions. In the weeks that followed the February meeting, for example, one mentoring group met for snacks to talk about lawyering and differing natures of undergraduate and legal education. Another team arranged to accompany the attorney mentor in March to the closing of a commercial transaction, where the attorneys explained the nature of the transaction and the purposes of various documents. Still others are planning to visit state appellate court oral arguments in April and speak with the presiding judges after argument.
And on a Saturday afternoon in February, one college-level mentor met her high school counterpart on campus for a quick tour, followed by coffee at the Coffee Plantation on Mill Avenue so they could get to know each other better and talk about college studies. The college mentor is of German ancestry and her high school mentee is Latina, and they soon learned much from each other about their respective cultural backgrounds and traditions. The college student later wrote to Calleros that "this program is really fun and a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I feel very privileged to be part of it."
One law student, Alba Jaramillo, worked over the winter break with her mentor, Alex Navidad, at his legal practice, Navidad Leal & Silva, a small firm with mostly Latino clients that specializes in criminal defense and immigration cases. Jaramillo helped with several cases, including some high-profile criminal cases and some involving deportations. She helped prepare cases for trial, observed client consultations, and visited clients in prison.
Jaramillo said the experience allowed her to develop skills important to the legal profession including communicating with clients, understanding immigration and criminal legal issues, and learning how to run a law firm as a profitable business while at the same time advocating for the Latino community.
Jaramillo said she will continue to work with Navidad throughout her academic career and will also mentor two Latina college students aiming to attend law school.
One of those students, Paulina Reyes, said she is saddened to see many in the Mexican community hampered by a lack of education, sometimes because of citizenship concerns.
"So before coming to ASU, I not only knew that I wanted to give back to my community, but fight for the rights of minorities," Reyes said. "Therefore, I decided to go to law school because that way I can assure myself to have some type of power to help my community."
Reyes said she chose to participate in the mentorship program to help herself, but also to help high school students.
"Being surrounded by Hispanic lawyers, law students, undergraduates and high school students is empowering because I see that it can be done," she said. "After meeting a couple times with my group, I feel like we already bonded and learned so much from each other's cultures and lives. We carry on conversations about Hispanic leadership and the things that can be done with a law degree."
Near the end of this semester, Calleros plans to meet with all interested law student organizations, to discuss ways of expanding the pilot mentoring program to as many students as possible.