SEATTLE — A new partnership between several Washington universities is aimed at empowering students of color to enter law school.
Seattle University, University of Washington, Gonzaga University law schools and Heritage University are taking part in the LSAC Plus Program, funded by a grant from the Law School Admission Council.
The program sets students up with admissions advice, mentorship opportunities, preparation for law school and guidance as they undergo the application process.
Maria Rivera is a participant in the program. Born and raised in Yakima, she attended Heritage University, graduating with a double degree and dreams of working in the legal profession.
At first, she planned to be a paralegal, but then considered taking things further after an experience volunteering as an interpreter for an attorney.
"I was in a detention center and these women spoke Spanish, they were from Mexico or El Salvador," Rivera said. "And they couldn't necessarily relate with the folks who were interviewing them so me being there I think allowed that vulnerability to happen for them so I think that was needed."
Rivera says the PLUS program has given her and her colleagues exposure to the legal profession and the desire for more diversity within it.
"I think the big part of it was picturing ourselves as BIPOC individuals in the atmosphere, in the work, a lot of us have experience working in the field but I think it was also hearing from attorneys that are BIPOC individuals, hearing their struggles and hearing its hard, but it's worth it and we need more," Rivera said.
Seattle University Assistant Dean of Admission Gerald Heppler says the PLUS program provides an opportunity both for students and for the law schools involved.
"I think it was inspired by our desire to continue to diversify the legal profession, and there's been a chronic shortage of attorneys in the central part of the state," Heppler said. "There just aren't enough lawyers in central Washington, so I think part of the hope is that many students will return to their communities there and practice law for many years."
Rivera says being able to bring legal education back to her community is a dream she, at one point, didn't even realize was possible.
"I'm first gen, so even for me to be able to get through the door and be in law school and hopefully be an attorney, is huge for my family," Rivera said. "I think it'll ripple into the generations to come- and not just if I have kids, but my siblings, like my nephew and my niece, cousins- it just changes things, because if she can do it, I can do it, kind of a thing. And not just in my family but the community as well."
Favian Mares, another participant in the program, says the mentorship opportunities opened space for conversations about representation.
"As young aspiring lawyers, seeing someone who comes from our background, looks like us, was really inspiring and motivating to us knowing we also could be them, we also could fill their shoes and be a lawyer as well," Mares said.
Mares hopes legal education could help in a variety of professions.
"Not only can you be a lawyer, advocate and provide a microphone to communities that haven't been heard before, but as well as you can use those skills in other aspects within your passions," Mares said.