In a time when profitability seems to be the sole driving force behind business practices, there is a need for colleges and universities to teach students the importance of being socially responsible in their personal and professional lives.
At Elon University School of Law, the key to accomplishing this is awareness, exposing students to what is happening in their community, the country and the world at large.
“We’re very much directed to our students being exposed to social responsibility and the role they will assume as lawyers out in society,” says Helen Grant, a professor at Elon Law. “We do that in a number of ways, both in the classroom context and in our experiential learning context, such as our clinics, as well as in extracurricular activities that our students take part in.”
One such project is the Humanitarian Immigration Law Clinic, which Grant directs. Launched in January 2011, the clinic provides free legal services to refugees and asylum-seekers living in North Carolina’s Triad region.
“We saw that the community really needed this type of legal service,” Grant says, adding that the agency that used to provide those services closed its doors in September 2010. “It fit so nicely with our focus on community engagement that we were more than happy to step into the bridge and excited about it too.”
As part of the clinic, students take primary responsibility of a client’s case. They meet with and get to know the clients. They begin to understand their needs and how they got to the United States, sometimes after horrific circumstances. From a social standpoint, students are exposed to people from varied cultures. From a professional standpoint, they get practical experience, such as time management skills. Professors oversee their work, but as Grant puts it, “we don’t watch their every move.”
She says that, without the clinic, many refugees and asylees would not have the legal resources necessary to fully integrate into American society, such as knowing how to apply for permanent residency or become citizens. Some of them were separated from their spouses or children because of war or famine, and without legal services to assist them, they would have little hope of being reunited with those loved ones.
For students to be exposed to these types of cases has been exceptional, Grant says, adding that they get great satisfaction from knowing they are helping people secure a better life for themselves and their families. She says many students who have participated in the clinic want to pursue careers in public interest law or are looking for jobs in refugee and asylum services.
“I’ve had many of them tell me it’s the best thing they’ve done in law school; it’s the most fulfilling thing that they have done,” Grant says. “We are here fostering a socially responsible group of students who will hopefully take that out into the local community and into the wider American community.”