Mentorship programs help students succeed in law school, advance professionally
Student organizations sponsor peer-mentoring programs and promote connections with alumni.
As a first-generation college student, James Street ’23 came into law school without a lot of critical information that other students may have and take for granted. Though his family supported his studies, they couldn’t pass on their own experiences that might have helped him through his 1L year, such as the importance of building relationships with classmates and faculty or how to navigate the complex clerkship process or the summer job search.
For Street, having a peer mentor during his first year at Duke Law School helped him to acclimate more quickly and to be successful.
“We are all products of our communities. Without previous mentorship, I would not be at Duke Law nor would I have achieved any of my other accomplishments,” he said. “It’s important to give back where you are and give other people the advice and information you wish you had.”
Street has joined numerous other students at Duke Law in participating in the school’s many mentoring programs, the importance of which are celebrated across the country in January during National Mentoring Month. More than a dozen student organizations offer formal mentoring programs between incoming and upper-class students.
In addition, the Office of Alumni and Development, the Career and Professional Development Center, and the Office of Public Interest and Pro Bono all work to facilitate relationships between students and alumni to help students make the most of their Law School experience and to explore professional pathways.
“The mentoring connections that students and alumni build through meetings, activities, and conversations provide unique opportunities to network and enhance other critical professional development skills,” said Caitlin Shaw, director of alumni engagement.
Students who have participated in the peer-mentoring programs sponsored by student groups say they get valuable advice and information that helps them to find their way in law school.
Gabrielle Feliciani ’23 has participated in mentorship programs as both a mentor and mentee through the Women Law Students Association, the Womxn of Color Collective, Asian Pacific American Law Students Association, and the Duke Bar Association. Her mentors were the first people she met at the Law School, and they helped her not only make friends but also figure out practical issues.
“They were amazing and answered literally dozens of questions about classes, jobs, making friends, and finding good takeout options in Durham,” Feliciani said.
Over time, she learned the strengths of her mentors, and she went to different people for advice on different things, whether it was outlining tips, extracurriculars or journals to join, or networking and the job search.
Many students echoed Street in noting that mentors are especially important for those who do not have relatives who have attended law school.
“I am a first-generation high school graduate and greatly depended on mentors to assist me navigate the new world that was higher education,” said Kaylin Portillo Chavez ’23, who was a mentee in the program run by the Latin American Law Students Association. “Law school can be incredibly difficult to navigate, and many can find it to be very isolating. Mentorship programs give students the opportunities that they might have never had access to.”
Students involved in mentoring programs offered by affinity groups say it is especially important for them to get the perspective of those who share their identities because they often face similar challenges and may have a similar perspective.
“It’s important to have mentors that understand your knowledge basis and can help in building the foundation for a successful law school and professional career,” Street said. “And just as there are important information differences, our experiences in law school and the legal profession are different, as well. Having conversations with a trusted mentor who understands you and your background can help you feel more confident and informed in professional and social settings.”
In addition, students say that mentorship programs offered by the affinity groups have more long-term benefits that encourage greater diversity and inclusion in the legal community.
“BLSA’s Mentorship Program serves as a tower to equip, empower, and elevate the next class of Black students,” said Jessica Lamour ’23, the Black Law Students Association internal vice president, who oversees the program. “This program benefits our members because it creates an avenue for conversation, guidance, and relationship. These relationships close information gaps and allow our members to know that they have a community supporting them as they embark on their legal journeys.”
Those who have participated as mentors say they often get as much from the program as do the mentees. They can hone their leadership skills, expand their networks, and make new friendships.
“My biggest benefit was being able to ‘pay it forward’ and getting the opportunity to be able to help someone that is in the same position I was before. That is something that is very important to me,” said Christian Rodriguez ’23, who served as a mentor in DBA’s program this year. “Alumni and students should help be those pillars to make our elite space more accessible to those who don’t have outside resources.”
As a 1L when the pandemic hit, limiting face-to-face interactions, Edward Gonzales ’22 had many questions that a mentor might have helped to answer, but he did not have one. Now, as an upperclassman, he is eager to help other students who may have struggled the way he did as a mentor in OutLaw’s program.
“Being a mentor serves as a great way to give back to the queer community at Duke Law,” he said. “Also, if 1Ls wish to become student leaders in their 2L and 3L years, being a mentor is an easy way to develop leadership and communication kills. After all, teaching others is the best way to learn yourself.”
Both mentors and mentees also reported that one of the most important benefits of participating is the opportunity to create lasting friendships.
“We also have a lot of fun in the LALSA Mentorship Program,” said Taliah Rodriguez ’23. “We plan events within the program and try to bring together the mentors and their mentees as much as possible. Even with the constraints of the pandemic, we have been able to hold events such as virtual game nights and lunches between classes. This program has been so helpful to me in destressing and bringing some joy into my law school experience.”