CGI U Provides Students Chance to Hone Legal Skills through Commitments to Action

Law students David Collier, Daniel Soltman, Joel Wessol, and Kailey Burger, as well as JD/MPH student Caitlin Hartsell and JD/MSW student Melissa Weiss, will be among the more than 1,000 students participating in the sixth annual Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) to be held on the Washington University campus, April 5-7.

Over the weekend, the students will join other participants in meeting with innovators, thought-leaders, and civically-engaged celebrities to address the most pressing challenges facing their campuses and communities. Focus areas include education, environment and climate change, human rights, poverty alleviation, and public health. President Bill Clinton; Chelsea Clinton; and Steven Colbert, host and executive producer of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, will be among the featured speakers. CGI U presenters also include Jeremy Johnson, president of undergraduate programs for 2U, the law school's partner for @WashULaw, the online LL.M. degree in U.S. Law for foreign attorneys.

Also speaking at the meeting was Kailey Burger, a third-year student at Wash U Law. Speaking in a panel titled “Poverty and Promise in America’s Rust Belt,” Burger discussed her involvement in the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy projects, particularly the importance of having a plan. “You have to come up with a real plan that’s going to work,” Burger said. “The last thing residents want is to hear a few ideas, take them out to lunch, then you leave. … You need to say, ‘Here’s what I see us doing together.’ ”

The event’s main focus is helping students implement their Commitments to Action. “A big part of that weekend is discussing how to successfully launch projects, and we will work closely with other students and attend panels on topics like fundraising and expansion,” Collier says. “It is an opportunity to learn about how to succeed with our commitment.”

Wessol’s project, “Making Vegetables Fun: The St. Louis City Healthy Eating Initiative,” builds on his experiences with Teach for America. Collier and Soltman are working as a team on their project, “Addressing Civic Education in St. Louis,” which places law students into St. Louis high schools to teach civics and constitutional law.  Hartsell's project is "Dental Therapist Program in Missouri to Improve Oral Health." Weiss is working with two MSW students on her project, "Promoting Women’s Health Within the Immigrant and Refugee Community of St. Louis."

  • Live CGI U Sessions [view]
  • CGI U Welcome Video (including law student quotes) [view]
  • CGI U Profile on Professor Leila Sadat [view]
  • CGI U Profile on the law school's Crimes Against Humanity Initiative [view]
  • CGI U Event photos [view]
Current Marshall-Brennan fellow Pallavi Garg,
left, and Dave Collier talk with first-year
student Susie Lake about the Marshall-
Brennan Project.

Expanding Upon Marshall-Brennan 

Third-year law students David Collier and Daniel Soltman’s project builds on an education project that Collier and several other law students have established at the law school.  Their chapter of the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project is part of a larger national service learning organization, which places law students in public high schools to take civics education beyond its basic requirements.

  • St. Louis on the Air interview with David Collier [view]
  • Chicago Tribune article mentioning Daniel Soltman [view]

Now in its fourth semester, Washington University’s Marshall-Brennan Project has brought eight law students to the Northwest Academy of Law in North St. Louis to teach high school students about their constitutional rights.

“We thought it would be a perfect program for St. Louis city high schools because of their provisional accreditation status and low graduation rates,” says Collier. “We also thought that with the diverse backgrounds of students at our law school, teaching in high schools would be a valuable, substantive learning opportunity for both the law students and the high school students.”

In fall 2011, Soltman and recent graduate David Mohl, JD ’12, became the first law school students the first law students to teach at Northwest through the Marshall-Brennan Project. Known as “fellows,” the teachers are selected through a competitive process, with each two-person team working under the supervision of Jane Moul, professor of practice.

Soltman says that teaching high school students about constitutional law and civics has practical benefits beyond the three hours of course credit they receive for their work.

“You understand the material a lot better when you have to teach it,” Soltman says. “Learning how to break complex issues down, communicate effectively, and speak in public are skills that all lawyers need.”

View video, above, on Marshall-Brennan

Collier—who has taught courses at the University of Missouri, University of Colorado, and a Columbia, MIssouri, elementary school before law schooladds that teaching in a high school setting also creates “softer skills.”

“Being involved in the community and helping the students learn is exciting,” he says, though he stresses that long-term the program’s success will be measured through pre- and post-tests of civics material and tracking how many students go on to college.

“Having Washington University Law students teach through the Marshall-Brennan Project is a winning scenario all around," Moul says. "St. Louis City public high school students get first-rate instruction from our  committed, enthusiastic students; our students benefit from the experiential learning in all kinds of ways, including through gaining skills associated with translating complex legal concepts to a lay audience; and it is an additional means for our law school to be connected with the broader community.”

Second-year students Cort VanOstran and Rebecca Morton taught in the program last fall. They say that it was especially enlightening to work with the high school students during a contentious election year.

“It was interesting to hear the students’ perspective and good to see them invested in the process,” VanOstran says. “Since the class focused on free speech, we had lively discussions about why candidates have the right to say what they say about each other.”

Morton also formed a close mentoring relationship with one of her students and assisted her with the college application process by taking her on a college tour this spring. “Even though we taught at 7:30 in the morning, the kids were excited,” she says. “They were receptive to the substantive information we taught, and appreciated the opportunity to debate the materials and ask about topics outside of class, such as college and law school.”

Morton also expresses gratitude to the Northwest Academy faculty and administration. “They have been wonderful, especially the classroom teacher, Sue Lampros, and the principal, Valerie Carter-Thomas. We couldn’t have set up the program without their support,” she adds.

The next step for VanOstran and Morton is working with the school’s moot court team. In April, VanOstran and Morton—along with six Northwest Academy students; third-year law student Nicholas Heberle, a current fellow in the program; and a law student who has applied to be a Marshall-Brennan fellow next year—will travel to Washington, D.C., to participate in the Marshall-Brennan National High School Moot Court competition.

In addition, next fall, John Inazu, associate professor of law, hopes to build a bridge with the high school program through his new seminar, The First Amendment in Schools. Author of Liberty’s Refuge: The Forgotten Freedom of Assembly, Inazu has long been a fan of the work of law school's Marshall-Brennan Project participants. 

“I’m particularly impressed with the students who have launched this program at Washington University,” Inazu says. “They are a visible reminder that the law school experience need not be insular—that we can learn and give back at the same time, and that the process of integrating service and professionalism starts now.”

Collier and Soltman will have the chance to continue to integrate service and professionalism after graduation. The St. Louis Marshall-Brennan Project will expand to at least one more school by 2014, and they are hoping Roosevelt High School will be on board, too. Ultimately, they aim to have five high schools within five years.

“You have to invest a lot of time and sweat into the program,” Collier says. “I look forward to continuing to work with the Marshall-Brennan Project as a practicing attorney.”

Healthy Eating in City Schools 

Third-year law student Joel Wessol, who spent two years teaching first-graders in the Bronx through the Teach For America (TFA) program, is honing in on lessons learned from both TFA and law school for his CGI U project.

Wessol’s CGI U commitment, “Making Vegetables Fun: The St. Louis City Healthy Eating Initiative,” is designed to teach children about growing, selecting, and preparing food while also working to fight childhood obesity.

“With my background working with children, I want to try and tackle the issue of childhood obesity through the classroom,” he says. “I have seen how impactful teachers can be in their students’ lives."

Part of Wessol’s experience teaching in the Bronx incorporated CookShop, a program which brought fresh produce into the classroom. Thanks to the Food Bank of NYC in conjunction with Columbia University, his students loved Wednesdays because those were designated “CookShop days.”

“I remember my students gathering around the portable hot plate where the meal was being prepared, hopeful that I would call on them to add some ingredients into the pot,” he says.

Drawing from this model, Wessol hopes his CGI U project will bring that same excitement to St. Louis public schools. Under the proposed program, students would gather once a week to help prepare and cook a dish using a featured vegetable. The project would enable them to also discuss how the food is grown and harvested; participate in cooking and eating the vegetable; receive a recipe and leftovers to take home to their families; and come away with an understanding and appreciation for healthy eating.

The skills he has learned in law school will also be directly applicable to his CGI U goals, as Wessol hopes to hone his abilities to establish a nonprofit and work with the community to ensure its success. His “Making Vegetables Fun” program will also mean forging relationships with local businesses and farmers to provide the necessary financial support and supplies for the pilot program. Additionally, he will use his skills of persuasion to convince schools to incorporate the program into their curriculum. Finally, he hopes to expand the program to involve other law students.

Wessol says his experiences with TFA played a major role in his decision to attend law school, which he now hopes is giving him the tools to create systemic change. “I saw a lot of inequity where I taught,” he says. “I realized that while staying in teaching would be beneficial to my students each year, but I wanted to do something where I could affect change from the outside.”

Dental Therapist Program in Missouri to Improve Oral Health

Caitlin Hartsell, who is pursuing a dual degree in law and in public health, designed a project to allow for “intermediate-level dental care providers” in Missouri. Her proposal strives to promote better oral health, especially in rural areas that are not near a dentist.

Currently, two states—Minnesota and Alaska—have allowed intermediate-level dental care, performed by what are sometimes called “dental therapists.” More than a dozen other states are considering the practice to fill gaps in their dental health-care systems.

In Alaska, for example, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium trains dental therapists to provide routine care—services like fillings, crown replacements, and simple extractions. As a result, more than 35,000 native Alaskans now have access to dental care. Similarly, “Advanced dental therapists” were approved by the Minnesota legislature in 2009.

Hartsell’s legal education would help with one part of the two-part program—proposing model legislation to allow for mid-level dental care providers in Missouri. The next part involves creating a training program.

“I put together a plan to improve dental care in rural Missouri by implementing the dental equivalent of a nurse practitioner in the state,” says Hartsell, who based her CGI U proposal on a similar project that she designed for her master’s in public health.

Promoting Women’s Health Within the Immigrant and Refugee Community of St. Louis

Joint JD/MSW student Melissa Weiss,
second from right, with fellow
Brown School graduate students.

Navigating America’s health care system can be challenging, to say the least—but imagine the challenge it presents to St. Louis’s immigrant and refugee populations who may not be fluent in English, let alone the complexities of American health care.

That’s the issue that Melissa Weiss, who is pursuing a joint JD/MSW, addresses in her CGI U project, that she is pursuing with three Brown School graduate students.

Called “Promoting Women’s Health Within the Immigrant and Refugee Community of St. Louis,” the project aims to partner with community groups to make immigrants and refugees in St. Louis aware of the preventative health resources available through President Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA).

“Coming into St. Louis as an immigrant or refugee and not knowing English, not knowing how to navigate any type of system, let alone the healthcare system, can be overwhelming,” Weiss says. “While it’s great that people have access to the services made available through the ACA, our initiative is aimed at breaking down the barriers to access for immigrants and refugees.”