Sunday, April 14, 2013

United in Mind and Heart

As I sat comfortably on the sofa during the first day of orientation, the Director announced, “You have all been afforded the opportunity to serve this year. And you had better believe it is an opportunity--you are all extremely lucky to be sitting here today.” I remember being taken aback for a second. It was probably the first time I had begun a service experience where I was not simply being reaffirmed of my good nature or thanked for committing myself to the betterment of others. Though I may not have realized it at the time, that was exactly what I needed to hear going into this year.

Indeed, back when I was beginning my last semester of college, I considered attending graduate school, taking a full-time job, or pursuing a year of post-graduate service. I eventually chose to dedicate myself to the Augustinian Volunteers. Service has always been a large part of my life, and during this time of life transition, a year of post-graduate volunteering seemed like the best avenue for growth. Going into the program, what I knew for sure was that I would be serving full-time at a legal services agency and I would be living with two other volunteers in “community.” At the time, I did not realize all that the term community could encompass, but I can now say with confidence that it is much of the reason that I more fully understand what it means to desire to live a life in pursuit of justice.

In the Augustinian tradition, community is where people unite in “mind and heart.” Each night my community members and I share dinner, stories, and life experiences. We serve as volunteers in different organizations, but what binds us together is our commitment to create a more compassionate world. The idea of community is not only exemplified in my home life; it is embedded deeply into my service site as well. Each day, I work as a homeownership pro bono case manager for the LawWorks Team at Philadelphia VIP, one of the largest pro bono legal services agencies in the country. When I first joined the office, I was surprised to find that there are only about fifteen full-time staff members. Despite so few employees, however, thousands of clients are assisted each year. It helped me realize that the work that I am doing can--and does--have a momentous impact.
Sometimes that impact manifests itself on a very basic, human level.

For instance, during a recent conversation with a client whose mortgage payments were being refused by her lender, I explained that I was not an attorney and thus could only offer her limited legal advice. She sighed, and while I prepared myself for her disappointment, she actually replied, “You’re listening to me, and that’s all I can ask for.” I was instantly reminded of that first day of orientation. This was the kind of opportunity that was afforded by our service--the kind of opportunity we are fortunate to have.

During my time in service thus far this year, I have constantly been inspired: by the stories my community members share, by my coworkers’ commitment to justice for the under-served, and by the work that our volunteer pro bono attorneys do on a daily basis. They give countless hours of their time to assist low-income clients who otherwise would go without necessary legal representation. This is the reason I want to enter into the field of public interest law. I want to join a community of lawyers who are trained and skilled, yet passionate about combating social justice issues that challenge so many peoples’ access to legal aid services. This year has afforded me an opportunity to unite in “mind in heart” with my community members, coworkers, clients, and volunteer attorneys – and I am truly blessed to be able to experience this sense of community on a myriad of levels.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

"The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is that little extra." - Jimmy Johnson

Well, it's been a LONG and tiring process but in the end, it's paid off. I was accepted to two of my top choices for law school on Friday! Villanova and Syracuse. I am SO incredibly excited and blessed. It goes to show that experiences, letters of recommendations, resumes, and personal statements (in the law school world known as "soft factors" or "softs") really must play some role. Although my college GPA was good, my LSAT scores were not so hot. I took it twice and was not too happy with the results, despite having taken a prep. course and studying A TON. I have just never had the standardized test gene, and after college I became somewhat cynical about the "numbers game." But nevertheless, I am just ecstatic that I have the opportunity to attend one of my top choices for professional school!

I applied to 15 law schools. I am crazy. It was absurd. I just didn't know the outcome with the slightly lower LSAT and which schools would offer me scholarships and such. You just never know. I technically am still waiting on four schools' admissions decisions. But at this point there's a 90% chance I'll be either attending Syracuse or Villanova. For the longest time, Syracuse had been my dream school so that I could pursue a joint degree with a MA in International Relations. I got into that program last year and deferred so I could do this year of post graduate service. Then my experience at my service site instilled in me this desire to pursue law school for public interest law. I still am really interested in international development too, and I can't imagine never having the opportunity to do anymore field work in developing countries or complete development work. So this joint degree would be such an amazing experience, albeit very ambitious. Then there's Villanova. Villanova is an Augustinian school and I have come to love Philadelphia. I have already made some connections here and I could easily see myself happily living in the area and maybe even practicing here one day. I visited Syracuse last Monday and was able to tour the law building and sit in on a 1L class, so I am going to do the same this week at Nova. Hopefully I can make a choice soon!

I can't believe I only have a little over two months left at my service site! I really feel like I have grown so much because of my time at VIP. It's obviously helped in terms of professional development, but also just generally, like I am capable of handling difficult problems or complicated situations in a more calm and rational manner. I utilize help from my colleagues and supervisor but I have found out how to time-manage better and also find many answers on my own, or through trial and error. I have also discovered how a day-to-day job in an office can be really rewarding and also really versatile. I have found my sense of creativity to only be strengthened. Like when I decided to make an inheritance tax guide or coming up with slogans to help attorneys be inspired to take cases. I think keeping grounded is important at any job, but in the public interest field, where there's often limited resources and slow outcomes, it's vital.

I am also really happy in my community and spiritual life. When I entered the program I honestly didn't see myself growing spiritually much at all. I wasn't uncomfortable with the idea of entering a religiously-affiliated program because I knew there are wonderful service opportunities within the Catholic tradition. Plus after having attended Stonehill, I had some experience with the idea. But it's been really rewarding spending time with the Friars who live next door and hearing stories from my community members' sites. Everyone is really down to Earth and even if I never outright say things like "This is where I see God at work..." I have really come to feel more at ease spiritually and having those deeper conversations. Plus drinking wine with the Friars over a chef-prepared dinner is something that no human can refuse! Let alone a starving volunteer...

In other news, the weather seems to be getting better. It's been a brittle winter and although Philly didn't get much snow, it's still been miserably cold. I'm sick of the gloves and big jackets. I cannot wait to walk to the train in the morning with just a sweater or better yet, not even a sweater! Looking at this week's forecast, it looks like it's hitting the 70's! I'll certainly take it.

It's always weird how it's towards the end of an experience that you begin to feel more comfortable and at ease, and then it's over. It just makes me want to make the most of these next two months as best as I can. It's easy to get caught up in the future, especially in my case where I actually am making those big decisions! But it's another thing to enjoy the present in full. I have been trying to strike a balance between the two.

Here's a photo of my community members and I at an indoor mini golf place a couple of weekends ago:

Monster Mini Golf!

I think that's about it for now. Yay for spring!