Back in 2006, McGill’s Faculty of Law was facing two challenges. “Very few students from less fortunate backgrounds or from visible minorities were joining our ranks. At the same time, our students were expressing their motivation to share legal knowledge with younger people,” says Ali Martin-Mayer, the Assistant Dean for Admissions and Recruitment.
The Law Faculty, under the direction of then-Assistant Dean Charmaine Lyn, decided to address both issues with one elegant solution: student-led high-school law workshops in communities with low post-secondary enrolment.
The High School Outreach Program has been going strong for four years now. In 2010, about 40 law students paid recurring visits to high school classes to talk about rights, responsibilities, respect for the law and social justice.
“Our students are being exposed to the law in its larger sense – not just what happens in the courtroom, but also how it affects people’s daily lives, such as the child-soldier protection program,” explains Vincent Mayer, a ninth-grade teacher and program coordinator at École Pierre-Dupuy. “They’ve seen that a lawyer can work in several environments – larger firms, for sure, but also in the community.”
The success of the program rests in part on the rapport that develops between the high school students and the McGill volunteers, who are only a few years older than the kids they’re addressing.
“We connect well with them,” says McGill law student Ryan Schwartz, who has been participating in the program for three years and this year is coordinating it at École Pierre-Dupuy, one of the five partner schools. “They understand that we are students like them and not professionals getting paid to teach.”
“The idea is to help these kids understand that they can find a place for themselves in the legal world,” says Schwartz. “For a young person who might have never considered studying past the required age, the experience can be a revelation.”
“I especially appreciate seeing a kid who starts out barely asking any questions and claiming not to be ‘good enough’ to become a lawyer, and then asks how to sign up after only a few meetings. We can see ideas taking root just by looking in his eyes.”