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“The hard work that we’re doing behind the scenes is contributing to something greater”

A conversation with Student Bar Association President Kelsi Robinson
Kelsi Robinson

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – A Southern California native, Kelsi Robinson didn’t give much thought to attending law school in Pennsylvania because it was so far from her home and family. A campus visit to Penn State Law in University Park changed her mind.

“The campus was just beautiful, all the people were so friendly and nice, and it had such a family-oriented atmosphere that I hadn’t experienced with any of the other law schools I visited,” Robinson said.

Now a rising 3L, Robinson has maximized her time at Penn State Law, and her actions as a student leader will have an impact well beyond her 2021 graduation.

Robinson has been involved with the Student Bar Association (SBA) from day one, starting as a 1L representative, then becoming SBA secretary in her 2L year, and is now SBA president.

“I decided to run for president because I really wanted to be able to be a voice for students and I wanted to increase transparency,” she said. “I liked the way SBA was run last year, but there are a lot of things that I want to improve.”

In addition to the SBA, Robinson is a member of the Black Law Students Association (BLSA), an associate editor for Penn State Law Review, and has been part of mock trial teams in each of her three years.

“It’s such a competitive environment and such a teamwork-oriented environment, so I love it and I feel like I fit in with it really well,” she said of her experience on mock trial teams.

Robinson knows a lot about teamwork and competition, having played volleyball all four years at her undergraduate university. She was even selected to be part of a collegiate “Team USA,” comprised of some of the top players from universities across the country, that traveled to Brazil in 2016 to play against local teams.

Being a leader on a sports team often means being a mentor to younger players. At Penn State Law, Robinson has embraced her role as a mentor to underclassmen: showing them around campus and State College, cooking them dinner, answering their questions and giving them tips to succeed—all the things that she remembers her mentor helping with when Robinson was a 1L.

Now entering her final year of law school, Robinson has been thinking a lot about her future career plans. Though she may return to California, she is also strongly considering staying in Pennsylvania; specifically, Pittsburgh, a city that she grew to love while completing an internship with Meyer, Unkovic & Scott LLP last summer. This summer, she is completing a remote internship with K&L Gates, another Pittsburgh-based firm, where she will build more experience in civil litigation, her primary field of interest.

Robinson recently spoke with Penn State Law about her role as SBA president and how she is helping to lead conversations and develop action steps to advance racial justice, equity, and inclusion.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Penn State Law: As SBA president, what are some things you have in mind that you think you can help with or improve on?

Kelsi Robinson: I really want to improve our student communication and make sure that whatever SBA is doing, the whole student body will know about it, and that whatever [SBA] is doing reflects what the student body wants. I also want to make sure to get our representatives more involved; historically we’ve had great 1L through 3L representatives but we haven’t really integrated them as much as we could have and use them as much as they should have been used. So I just want to make sure that our representatives are super active and utilized by students and faculty and the [executive] board in general. 

Another thing is increasing LL.M. [a one-year master of laws program designed for international students] involvement; it’s been a goal of SBA for a while but we’re still just not there. So we had an LL.M. student do a report on what would make them feel more included, and so it will be helpful to take that and try to think of new ways to get LL.M.s included, not just in SBA but within the student body in general, and making them feel as integrated as possible.

PSL: Obviously the fall semester is not going to look the same due to COVID-19. Are you thinking about that, and how that might add some additional obstacles or challenges with regard to the goals you want to accomplish as SBA president?

KR: Yes. We’ve been planning for what’s going to happen with the fall for about a month or two now, so we’re kind of loading up our summer work for SBA so that once [classes begin] it’s not too stressful trying to figure everything out. Right now we’re working on a supplemental student handbook so that student organizations know exactly how they can run their events—from how many people they can have, distancing between people, that kind of thing. And we’ve also been working on trying to figure out how to tailor all of our events so that they can be in person but also online for the people who can’t show up. And how to do our elections remotely and our meetings remotely.

PSL: Penn State Law recently developed a list of concrete action steps to address and improve issues of racial equity and inclusion at the law school. Can you walk me through your involvement in these conversations and the creation of these action steps?

KR: There is a monthly meeting with all of the Penn State Law deans that my vice president and I go to every month. So before that meeting I did a lot of research on other Big Ten schools and listed out what diversity initiatives they have, what their diversity websites look like, what kind of diverse faculty hiring they are doing, and what their responses [to issues of racial justice, equity, and inclusion] have been. After that, I highlighted things that our university should be doing and did a review of [Penn State Law’s] diversity website. After doing that, I feel like we were in a decent place with other Big Ten schools but we also could be doing so much more. At the end of that document we added our own initiatives that we would love for the school to consider. And we were really surprised by how well [Penn State Law] responded to that. 

One of our really big initiatives was establishing the George Floyd Memorial Scholarship Fund, and when we had that first conversation it seemed like a far-off idea, like it could happen in a few years but probably not right away. And then that night Dean [Jill] Engle [associate dean for academic affairs] emailed us and said that she was willing to start the scholarship. I remember I almost wanted to cry at that point, because it’s such a good feeling knowing that a lot of the hard work that we’re doing behind the scenes is contributing to something greater for the next round of law students and helping to bring more Black law students into Penn State. So that was an awesome feeling.

My whole [SBA] board has been working a lot on other initiatives. We worked on the Race, Law, and Equity concentration and making sure that got established. Our [SBA] academic chair worked with Dean Engle on that one. It was nice to see that voted in as well so that when Black law students, or any law students, are looking at Penn State and looking at the concentrations that we have, they are seeing that we do take race, law, and equity seriously here, and if they want to learn more about that, they can come here. And we’re hoping that concentration will inspire more professors to add classes on race to their curricula as well. 

The whole process was definitely a joint effort between SBA and BLSA. I’m just really, really proud of the fact that Penn State Law seems like they are really listening and taking some concrete action steps.

PSL: Do you think this process has improved channels of communication—between students, between students and faculty, and between students and the administration?

KR: Yeah, I think so. This, coupled with COVID-19, I think all of it has enhanced our communication directly with the dean and with faculty. Especially our events on June 4 [organized in response to the killing of George Floyd and many other Black Americans]. We were happy to see so many faculty members engaged; a lot more than we anticipated came and supported us, so that was just a really nice showing of support.

PSL: How do we—the entire Penn State Law community—ensure that these conversations continue?

KR: So far, what has been hopeful for me is that a lot of students, on their own, have really taken educating themselves about racism seriously. So I hope that is something that continues and isn’t just a phase. 

Besides students educating themselves, I think professors adding some sort of racial history into their curriculum and their courses would be very beneficial as well. The fact that we do have a Race, Law, and Equity concentration now, I’m hoping will keep that momentum moving. I know that the Critical Race, Law, and Feminism class will be in the new concentration, and that class is amazing for learning about racial relations across the nation and learning about feminism. More classes like that I feel like will help keep the momentum going because it will keep educating students beyond these few months.

PSL: More broadly, how do we keep this energy moving forward to bring about long-lasting change?

KR: On the SBA side, it’s important to keep the administration accountable—so that means every dean’s meeting we’re asking about the action items, seeing where the faculty are and what’s been done, what has improved, and what we still need to work on. So we can make sure that we’re holding everyone accountable. 

We also established [through the action steps] a diversity committee that includes faculty and students. So we’ll have faculty members meeting every month with a rotating group of student leaders from various student organizations so that our student leaders have direct communication with our faculty diversity committee members. And so we’re keeping discussions ongoing throughout the year, so hopefully that can be something that we continue.

PSL: It seems like an important aspect of these discussions and steps is that it is not just BLSA, not just SBA—these are issues that everyone needs to be involved in and help address.

KR: Yes, definitely. Black students are needing a lot of support right now, and I feel like an important part of allyship is being able to support others that need it. For example, June was Pride Month, so it was important to us to take all the energy that we had with BLSA and also pour it into OutLaw [a Penn State Law student organization of LGBTQ+ individuals and allies]. We need to make sure that all of our student groups are always feeling supported and heard.

PSL: Thinking about these issues on a national level, are you optimistic that the country may be making some progress or does it feel like just part of a recurring cycle?

KR: I know how many times we’ve been through this cycle, but it feels a lot more hopeful now, and I think part of that could be the fact that everyone is stuck at home right now so all they can do is listen and educate themselves. So I think that may be working in our favor. The coronavirus is awful, but I think that is one of the bright sides of it—people have no choice but to listen. 

Usually when this happens, there will be an episode of police brutality, then a week or so of a hashtag, and then maybe another week of saying we should do something and then it dies out. What’s different now is that it’s been about a month of just constant feedback, education, and people taking this more seriously than usual, so that is making me very hopeful.

I also think more people are realizing that they were wrong before. I know I’ve had a lot of friends reach out to me. When I played volleyball in undergrad, I would kneel during the anthem every game. And no one else on my team did it, but lately I’ve had a lot of my teammates reach out to me saying, ‘I didn’t realize what you were trying to say and I didn’t realize how big of a problem this was, I’m sorry I didn’t kneel with you.’ So people are starting to realize that police brutality is real, even if they didn’t know it before, or it wasn’t in the front of their minds before, now they are starting to learn about it and educate themselves.

PSL: Is there anything that stands out to you as particularly frustrating in terms of the way these issues are discussed—whether on social media, the news media, in communities, or elsewhere?

KR: One extremely disheartening and frustrating part of the way these issues are discussed is the fact that this has turned into a political stance. These issues—human rights issues—should not be inherently Democrat or anti-Republican. These issues should not have anything to do with politics, but rather basic respect for each other’s lives and well-being.

PSL: Let’s finish up by bringing it back to the local level. Do you think about things at Penn State Law long-term, beyond your time as a student, in terms of what you would like to see improve?

KR: I’ve definitely thought about that more now, being SBA president, because there are so many initiatives that our board can do that will keep going on for years to come. I think the main thing Penn State Law can do to improve is continuing to make it a more comfortable space for more Black students.

It’s hard when you come to a school that is predominately White and you don’t have a lot of students who look like you and you don’t have as many professors who look like you. That’s something I would love to see Penn State Law work on more is diverse hiring—not just diverse in terms of hiring more women, but also hiring more people of color. And making sure that we continue to expand scholarship opportunities for Black students, and Asian students, Latinx students, etc., to help diversify our school more.

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