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Penn State Law Minority Mentor Program enters seventh year

Penn State Law in University Park hosted its annual kickoff reception for the Minority Mentor Program (MPP) on Friday, August 27, at the Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center. The reception provides first-year law students entering the MMP to learn more about the program and to network with Penn State Law students, faculty, staff, and alumni.
2021 MMP participants

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Penn State Law in University Park hosted its annual kickoff reception for the Minority Mentor Program (MPP) on Friday, August 27, at the Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center. Though rain forced the event indoors, it could not dampen the spirit of excitement and community support generated by the MMP, now going into its seventh year.

The program aims to provide support to underrepresented law students by matching them with mentors, both internal and external to Penn State Law, who are professionals in the legal field and can help mentees achieve academic success and emotional well-being during law school and after entering the legal profession.

The kickoff reception provides first-year law students entering the MMP to learn more about the program and to network with Penn State Law students, faculty, staff, and alumni.

Speaking at the event, Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion, Samuel Weiss Faculty Scholar, clinical professor of law, and director of the Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Penn State Law in University Park, shared with attendees the history of the program as well as some specific ways that it can positively impact students.

“One goal of the Minority Mentor Program is for participating students to have support while in law school and learn how to navigate unique challenges, including overt and implicit bias, and also to channel their lived experiences to represent their clients with compassion and legal excellence,” said Wadhia, who helped create the program in 2015. “Advancing equity and inclusion of minority lawyers in the legal profession cannot be solved with a single program, but it is my hope that the MMP will help prepare our students in a meaningful way.”

This year, 46 incoming students are enrolled in the MMP, bringing the total number of participating students to more than 90. While the growth of the program is a sign of its success, it also reflects the need for such a program to exist within the legal academy.

“Overwhelmingly, the data reveals that access alone is not enough to ensure equal opportunity for underrepresented law students at predominately white institutions (PWIs),” said Dr. Wende’ Ferguson, assistant dean for student services at Penn State Law. “They must deal with societal pressures and frequent negative stereotypes as well as usually being a token in their law school. As well, underrepresented law students are more likely to begin their programs lacking the social, political, and cultural capital necessary for success.”

The MM Program, she said, is a vital component in the academic experience of students from diverse backgrounds.

“Mentors will support students’ academic, professional, and personal development in law school, and our hope is that students are able to bring their authentic selves to the mentoring relationship,” Ferguson said.

In his opening remarks at the reception, James W. Houck, interim dean of Penn State Law in University Park and the School of International Affairs, expressed support and admiration for the program and all those involved in making it a success.

“Over the years, I have watched this program continue to grow and to flourish thanks to the hard work and dedication of Associate Dean Wadhia, Assistant Dean Ferguson, and all of our faculty and staff who volunteer their time to serve as mentors,” Houck said. “To students currently in the program, I offer my commitment that Penn State Law will continue to support you throughout law school and as you enter the legal profession.”

Attendees also heard from Michele Vollmer, associate dean for clinics and experiential learning, director of the Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic, and clinical professor of law at Penn State Law, who has served as a faculty mentor since the program began.

“As a faculty mentor in the Minority Mentor Program, I cannot thank Associate Dean Wadhia enough for helping to build such an amazing program that fosters community with our mentee students in a meaningful way,” Vollmer said. “The program challenges the faculty mentors to show up for their mentees, and to share information and encouragement—not just at the beginning of the semester, but throughout each student’s journey through law school.”

The evening’s speakers concluded with Sidnee McDonald, a third-year law student, president of the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) at Penn State Law, national director of career and professional development for the National Black Law Students Association (NBLSA), and a participant in the MMP.

In her remarks, McDonald spoke on the impact the program has had on her personally and professionally and encouraged first-year law students to take full advantage of the resources their mentors can provide. She specifically expressed gratitude to her own mentors—Associate Dean Wadhia; Penn State Law alumna Teleicia Dambreville, Esq. (juris doctor ’13), in-house counsel for Burlington Stores, Inc., and recipient of the 2019 Penn State Alumni Association Alumni Achievement Award; and Chima Okoli Esq., founder of Marathon Mentors and former associate director of admissions at Penn State Law in University Park.

“What I love most about the Minority Mentor Program is that I was assigned mentors who value me, are patient with me, and are invested in my success,” McDonald said.

Student mentees in the MMP are current J.D. candidates at Penn State Law in University Park who have expressed interest in the program and who identify as students from diverse backgrounds, including students identifying as a member of a racial or ethnic group underrepresented in the practice of law; members of a religious minority; students with mental or physical disabilities; and students identifying as LGBTQ+.

Visit our website for more information on the Penn State Law Minority Mentor Program.

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