JENNIFER ROSATO PEREA: When I think about being a legal educator and being a dean, part of what I want to do is make sure that it’s easier for the generations behind me. They don’t have to figure it out by just watching and looking and making mistakes. That we are more proactive about helping them ease into the profession and ease into law school.
LINDA BLAKLEY: Welcome to DePaul Download, I’m your host Linda Blakley. Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is making history as the first African American woman to become an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, the pinnacle of the legal profession. The Supreme Court, however, isn’t the only legal arena where underrepresented groups are struggling to belong. While law schools have grown more diverse, students of color still face challenges and barriers to success. DePaul College of Law Dean Jennifer Rosato Perea, known on campus as Dean Jenn, is doing to something about it.
Her college has started innovative programs to improve diversity, equity and inclusion, and encourage more first-generation students, and students of color, to join the legal profession. She joins DePaul Download today to tell us about those efforts. Welcome Dean Jenn.
JENNIFER ROSATO PEREA: Thank you Linda. Thanks for having me today.
LINDA BLAKLEY: You know from personal experience what it’s like to be a first-generation law school student of color. Could you tell us about the challenges you’ve faced?
JENNIFER ROSATO PEREA: Ah, the challenges I’ve faced, particularly in law school reflected some of my background, which was a first generation – my father was a steel worker, and my mother was a bookkeeper and so, neither of them went to college, let alone law school. And so, you know, in college I certainly felt, you know, some of the differences that I had from my peers, but it was really – and it really deepened in law school. And even from the first day of law school, I sat in my section next to my law school classmates – we are now celebrating our 35th year post graduation – and I knew, just from day one that I was different.
I didn’t understand a lot of the words that they were using. I didn’t understand some of the historical references – the references to books I had not read because I had a different educational background than many of my peers who came from prep schools and other places of elite higher education. And so, that was an initial difference and then as I went through, I realized that they had networks that I didn’t have. They knew lawyers, they knew people in prominent places that were going to help them get internships and jobs, which I did not have.
They had built-in mentors that I did not have. And there was also this sense of the culture of law and even how you dress, how you eat in a fancy restaurant. Those of the kinds of things that I had to really learn by observing others who were doing it and try to replicate that, and first gen students talk about that a lot. You kind of watch and hope that you won’t be discovered as someone who is a first gen or someone who is other. So those were the kinds of experiences that I had throughout and, of course, feeling like that can make you feel a lot of self-doubt, whether you belong in that space, whether you are good enough to be a lawyer or, you know, a law student.
But as you go through – as I went through law school, I found out that the things that I had learned and the values that I had actually helped to pull me through and actually worked to succeed and to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish in law school. Even though I felt there were headwinds along the way.
LINDA BLAKLEY: So, while law schools have grown more diverse since you were a student, students of color still struggle to feel like they belong. What do you hear from students in your college about inclusion?
JENNIFER ROSATO PEREA: Well, I hear from my students a lot of, kind of, the same kinds of issues that I heard about 30 years ago – or 35 years ago. Both about diversity, wanting more students who are like them – more faculty who are like them. But beyond that, they’re looking for, as you say, inclusion. Meaning that, don’t just bring us in and put us in a seat – this should be an environment that really nurtures us, that really encourages us, and supports us to succeed. And so, what they talk about I think is at another level than what I experienced in law school because they were very few, you know, students of color, very few first gen and we didn’t identify ourselves.
They’re really asking for more inclusion in curriculum. They want to know that the law school curriculum reflects the law – the legal system that they are familiar with, which includes structural disparities and a history that is not often talked about in law school. That they’d like more of that inclusive education. They would like more mentoring, they understand there is a need for mentoring, and substantial mentoring, both from peers in law school as well as from lawyers. And so, they really ask for that – that sustained mentoring.
They also ask for more help financially because they do struggle, and we know from the pandemic that many students are struggling, particularly our students of color and our first gen students who don’t have that family safety net to rely on when things get tough. And I think the other thing that they talk about, that still happens in law school, are the microaggressions. Whether it’s a student to student – somebody making a comment about, you know, about tokenism or about why they’re in law school.
Or even a professor who might make an insensitive comment here or there, or mispronounce their name, or, you know, things like that, that happen, you know, by – usually by implicit bias on a daily basis. And those are the kinds of things that they talk about wanting to be better, in terms of their experiences.
LINDA BLAKLEY: So, DePaul Law is starting an innovative program to begin addressing some of these issues before students even start their first day of law school. We talked with Amanda Noascono, your college’s assistant dean and director of admissions, about why it’s important to support students early.
AMANDA NOASCONO: Countless studies show that if you have a parent or parents that are already attorneys that is the single most dispositive factor that is going to get your foot in the door, in terms of the legal profession. And first-generation scholars, by nature – by definition, are those that don’t already have an attorney in the family or the immediate family or in the family situation – whatever that might be. And so, that was one of the biggest factors – is how do these students who want to be able to compete, want to be able to get that experience – get that initial experience without that foot in the door.
LINDA BLAKLEY: So, could you tell us more about how DePaul Law is addressing this issue?
JENNIFER ROSATO PEREA: Yes. DePaul Law is addressing this issue in a number of ways. But I want to start just by, just underscoring what Amanda said about the differences of first-generation students and lawyers. And really starting from there, that you don’t have parents or people that are right in your home that are really both inspiring you to go into law, and to encourage you that you could be a lawyer. And you don’t have the kitchen table, supper conversations about politics, about history, about what’s going on in the confirmation hearings.
And those are the kinds of conversations that both help you know that you can be a lawyer, and also, build the skills and that kind of – like I was talking about – that culture and that ability to talk and fit into that legal sphere that you don’t have as a first-generation student. So, and now, as Amanda said, there are studies and the most recent one that was done was really looking at first jobs after law school. And when they looked at those graduates and they started to parse out the first-generation students – which now we are starting to actually look at as a separate group – and they did significantly worse in their career placements than the students, the graduates, who had lawyers in their families.
It made a huge difference. And so, there are two aspects of that – or three aspects of that. One is the social capital, as we were talking about, kind of the culture of law and, kind of, what you pick up along the way. The second are skills, whether it’s the skill to be able – to be able to persuade – it might be written skills, writing, persuasion, test taking. And then the third is experience – that if you have a lawyer in your family, they’re going to bring you to the office and they might have you help around the office or have their friend hire you for a summer, right?
And so, when we were thinking about this program – and Amanda’s really the visionary of this program and she’s also a first gen – this program that we’ve now started to launch, which is the First Generation in Law Scholars Program. We really started to look at – what did we want when we were in law school? What did we need when we were in law school? And then started to also think about all the students that we’ve worked with, that we we’ve admitted, that we’ve talked to. And we really started to put – build a program that put all of those pieces together.
So we have the skill building which includes – you know, whether it’s a mock trial, or it includes LSAT preparation to make sure that, that huge test you do as well as you can on – it’s still very highly measured and regarded and weighed in the admissions process for law schools, so we give them a head start there. We also build in the culture, and the mentoring and the networking and the ability to be able to be in that space in a more comfortable way. And you do it with a cohort, so you do it with a number of other students that are with you all along the way and mentors that are with you all along the way.
And then we build in the experience and so it’s a three-year program and in that last summer of the program – you go three summers – first summer you go for a week – the second summer, you go for six weeks, and then the third summer, you go for a bit longer. And in that third summer, you get an internship – not only do you do the LSAT prep and that’s as you are an entering junior – you also get something to put on your resume and get that experience. So, what we tried to do is really be thinking about, you know, what did we want? What do students need to succeed? And then to really build that program from there.
LINDA BLAKLEY: Now I’m a first-generation college student and I can remember being back at home with a friend of mine who was a lawyer. I introduced him to my nephew, and he didn’t believe it – he didn’t believe that my friend was actually an attorney. So these pipeline programs provide the visibility and a way for people to – young people to imagine and see themselves as a part of the profession. But this isn’t your college’s only pipeline program. What are some of the other ways that DePaul Law is encouraging first-generation students, or students of color, to consider attending law school?
JENNIFER ROSATO PEREA: The FGLP, the scholars program, is kind of the – kind of the epitome, right? It’s the pièce de résistance, so to speak, the comprehensive program. But we’ve been working on building pipeline programs over the years, and partnering with, you know, fellow organizations who are equally devoted to this effort. So, there are a couple of things that we do that are – that I’m pretty proud of. One is the ILSA forum, which is a one-day program for high school and college Latinx students. And they come from all over the region, and they come for a day and that’s really more, I think, to, kind of, introduce Latinx students to law school.
Get them excited about it, get them to know what they need to know. So, we tell them about the LSAT, we have them start to think about fields of practice, they see some of the wonderful Latinx lawyers in the community who they know that they can be. And then they can go from there. So, it’s a really nice way – and we’ve been doing that for a number of years in collaboration with other law schools as well as other organizations.
We also have been working and partnering – for a number of years – with the Chicago Committee on Minorities in Large Law Firms. So commonly called just the Chicago Committee. And we’ve collaborated on a program called LegalTrek, which we hope to be part of this larger program that we’re building. And in that program – it’s a six-week program – and the students come one afternoon, every week for six to eight weeks, and they get a little preview of every one of those areas that I’ve been talking about.
Whether it’s LSAT prep, how to put together a powerful admissions personal statement, how to do – you know, doing mock trials, getting a mentor, and it’s done in a very, you know, a very fun way – the students get very excited. And I know that many of those students do go on to go to law school and a few of them have come to DePaul and other law schools across the city. So that’s – those are some of the other programs. And we have high school students that come in from, you know, different parts of the city that come and do programs at the law school. So we try to really bring little – small little pipelines in as much as possible.
LINDA BLAKLEY: So, after these students start at DePaul Law, how do you continue to encourage their success?
JENNIFER ROSATO PEREA: We try to encourage their success in a number of ways. And I would say that it’s a work in progress – we’re really still building all that we need to. And I said earlier, our students are really asking for – as I wish we’d asked for, you know, when we were in law school – what they need? What are the things that they need to succeed? And we’re building it, kind of, one brick at a time but I’ll mention a few of the things. One is – as I mentioned in my own experience – you had to kind of sink or swim in law school.
And there is still a bit of that, that’s kind of the nature of the educational enterprise in law school fundamentally. But what we’ve tried to do is to try to take some of the mystery out of it. So in the first year, for example, we have a course called Applied Legal Skills, which is about how do you learn basic legal analysis? How do you have self-reflection about what you’re learning so that you can improve your learning? And that gets you to the first set of exams, so that’s one course.
And that – and it’s required for all of our students, so nobody has that mystery – they’re all learning some of those basic skills as we go along. And the second is that Preparing to Practice course. And that’s a course that actually helps students become more marketable, become more knowledgeable about legal fields, they learn about, you know, how to write a cover letter, a resume, how to network. All of those things that they need for their first job, even after the first year of law school. So that’s kind of building that foundation.
And then we also have just piloted – this is the second year – a mentoring program for our first gen, our students of color, our DACAmented and undocumented students so that they could be paired with an alum, for the first year, and just have them be able to connect with them, shadow them – just help them get through that first year of law school. So that’s a new program that we have. We also have been adding to our resources for our students, whether it’s during law school in enhancing diversity scholarships but also giving more scholarships or awards for students as there are studying for the bar, because that’s a really hard time.
There are now known disparities between white students who pass the bar in higher percentages than Black and Latinx students. And so we know that that’s a crucial time where students really need to be studying, they can’t – they shouldn’t be working and trying to ease some of those financial disparities particularly during that time. And then, I think the, you know, the last thing that we’re working on is curricular – that curricular reform that those students were asking for. And starting this fall, the faculty worked about a year, or year and a half, to put together some curricular reforms which includes a learning outcome in making sure that students know about racial justice, about cultural competence before they graduate.
And then every student has to take a course in racial or social justice before they graduate. And so that, hopefully, will begin to address some of those concerns that, that legal system that they’re learning about doesn’t always reflect their experience in the legal system and some of those structural inequities that are built into that system.
LINDA BLAKLEY: That sounds very Vincentian.
JENNIFER ROSATO PEREA: Yes, yes, yes, yes. And I do want to get props also to our student affinity groups. They are also – I mean they – that’s not something that we do – they are very active; they really work very hard to mentor and support their members. And so they’ve been very active in working with the administration to make sure that more change is being done. And we’re doing it, not just talking about it.
LINDA BLAKLEY: So, I want to close with two questions. Why is your college focusing on these initiatives, and how will you know if their succeeding?
JENNIFER ROSATO PEREA: Very good questions. So, I’ll try to answer the first one first. Why – the answer why? You always have to ask, “What’s your why?” Right? What is your why, why is this important? And there really are so many reasons why it’s important to support our students in this way. I mean, it’s – we are dedicated to students; success and if our students aren’t succeeding, if they’re struggling, if they’re not graduating, you know, with the same outcomes as other students? Then we need to work on that, we need to make that better, we need to close those gaps.
And particularly because the gaps seem to be getting wider, I think in – from K-12 to college education – there are just gaps in educational quality and what is learned that can better – that don’t quite prepare them as well for law school, that we have to more proactive, than we’ve ever been, in trying to close those gaps. I do think it’s also, you know, I do think – going back to the
Grutter opinion, which is about, you know, affirmative action and reasons for having critical mass of students who are different and there, they were talking about students of color.
It’s that it’s important for everyone to have a diverse community, to have diverse voices at the table. And that means at every table. That means students who are not only in the classroom, but also in student leadership, and then go on to be lawyers and do that work in their fields in a successful way. So, I think that’s very important as well. And of course, as you mentioned before, the mission of our university at its core, at its heart, is about access to education. And so in order – if we can improve student outcomes, if we can improve student satisfaction for our first gen and our students of color, then we’d better serve the mission.
And then the second question, which is how do we know if we’re succeeding? That’s – I think there’s two ways that I would say we’re succeeding. One is if our students feel like it’s a more inclusive and welcoming environment. And that could be reflected, of course, in student surveys, in the bar – in the student bar association and what they bring to us in terms of students’ concerns. Talking to affinity groups and how they are feeling about their experience in law school.
And I think secondly, it will also be – the proof will be in the pudding, so to speak. In terms of improved bar passage rates and improved – and better job placement at graduation, which I mentioned before are some of those disparities that we’re starting to look at nationally. And so, we want to make sure that we are making progress in those areas for all of our students. But also our students who might be more vulnerable and may be the first-generation person in their family, or a student of color as well.
LINDA BLAKLEY: Well Dean Jenn, you’re a tremendous champion in diversity in the legal profession. And we thank you for everything you and your college are doing to help our students to persevere. Thank you for being with us today.
JENNIFER ROSATO PEREA: Thank you so much. Yes, let’s all persevere.
LINDA BLAKLEY: I’m your host Linda Blakely. Thank you for listening to DePaul Download, presented by DePaul’s Division of University Marketing and Communications.