New York, March 14, 2013—Packing away her law school books for a week, Maggie Maurone ’13 will be driving 80 miles northeast as part of the Columbia Law School Spring Break Pro Bono Caravans. Her destination: the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center in New Haven, where she and two other students will assist the four-attorney staff by reviewing the records of former military personnel who might be eligible for enhanced benefits if their discharge status can be upgraded.
“I am a veteran and I thought this was a great opportunity,” said Maurone, who, before enrolling in law school, served five years as an intelligence officer in the Air Force, including on search and rescue missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Now she will lend her intelligence to assisting former servicemembers through Columbia Law School’s Social Justice Initiatives Program. Every year during spring break, students fan out from their Morningside Heights campus to do pro bono work with partner organizations. This year, 85 students will participate in 17 caravans in locations that range from the Bronx to Alaska. They will help expunge criminal convictions at the San Jose State University’s Record Clearance Project; organize workers and homeless residents in post-Katrina New Orleans; and work with Native American tribes in Anchorage on natural resources and Voting Rights Act issues, among other projects.
"The caravans provide an opportunity for students to spend spring break doing hands-on work alongside their schoolmates for an intensive week in which they provide meaningful assistance, learn a lot, network with public interest lawyers and get to know one another in a new context," Ellen P. Chapnick, Dean for Social Justice Initiatives.
Student groups participate in identifying caravan possibilities. The Law School’s Military Association, for example, reached out to the Connecticut veterans’ center, a first-time partner, said Maurone, a member of the student group who helped set up the opportunity.
“There are not a lot of organizations that solely do work for vets,” she said. “This is their whole mission. I want to get immersed in the issues.”
Two student groups—the Society for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and the Columbia Society for International Law—joined together to arrange the first international caravan, said Caroline Stover ’14. Six students, including Stover, will travel to a refugee camp in Amman, Jordan, working with the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project. Stover already does asylum-related pro bono work with a volunteer attorney in New York. But the trip is an opportunity to see the circumstances of people whose situation is similar to the clients she has met only by telephone.
“These are people who were in Iraq during the war,” she said. “It was not safe for them to be there, and they had to leave. They need a place where they can stay permanently, and being in Amman is not a permanent solution.”
By meeting with experts on site and observing the living situations at the camp, she hopes to be better able to describe the need for asylum in client petitions. Stover plans to hold an informational event for other students at the Law School when she returns.
Some students are repeat caravan participants. Julie Braker ’13 is flying several hundred miles south to work on immigration issues in Florida at Americans for Immigrant Justice, a nonprofit that provides free direct services and tackles impact litigation, policy reform, and public education. Braker said she and five other students expect to work with clients on detention and migrant farmworker issues.
This is the second caravan for Braker. Last year, her interest in immigration law took her to El Paso, Texas, where she worked on border issues with the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy.
“We gained such good experience in how immigration law operates in a context outside of class,” she said. “I think the caravans are such a valuable teaching tool for the law students and can be an asset for the host organization.”
Columbia Law School’s spring break runs from March 18 through March 22.
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