Chicago-Kent's New "Public Interest Center" Launched at Awards Ceremony Honoring Student Pro Bono Work

Thursday, May 12, 2022
Public Interest Awards 2022
Alumni speaker Ruth Lopez '09 addresses students at the Chicago-Kent's 2022 Public Interest Awards.

Thousands of volunteer hours by dozens of Chicago-Kent College of Law students were commemorated at the 2022 Public Interest Awards ceremony, where the school’s leaders announced the founding of a new institution that will serve as a cornerstone for student public interest and pro bono work.

“In this 15th year of our Public Interest Awards, I am excited to announce that we are starting a new Public Interest Center at Chicago-Kent,” said Chicago-Kent Dean Anita K. Krug at the April 27 ceremony. “[The center will] support careers in public interest law for Chicago-Kent students, while expanding access to justice in the community.”

Michelle Vodenik, the director of the new center, noted, “When I say that pro bono and public interest law is for everyone, no matter what career you're going into…that’s really true!”

The center, which will launch in the fall of 2022, will provide information and networking for students of any field who are interested in public interest, volunteer opportunities, and pro bono legal work; as well as support for our students pursuing public interest careers.

Following the announcement, a few Chicago-Kent alumni spoke about why their passion for public interest work served to fuel their past and future careers.

“It’s clear from the awards and the time, the hours that you all spent here, that you care about helping others. That this is a priority for you, and in your life,” said alumni speaker Ruth Lopez ’09, senior immigration fellow for the Illinois Department of Human Services. “This work is hard but it’s very rewarding. And it will require a community to support you as you go through.

“You have that community here in Chicago-Kent.”

In an emotional speech, Lopez related her own personal story of how her immigrant father was jailed, prompting her mother to go to college to receive a teaching degree.

“My sister and I waited in the college halls in the evenings while she was in class. We relied on public support programs, food stamps, food pantries, public aid clinics, and public interest law,” she said, noting that when her father was released from prison, he was not deported after receiving representation from a nonprofit attorney, and their family was reunited. “It wasn’t until years later that I realized how crucial it was that my father was represented in his immigration trial.”

But when that realization came, Lopez knew she would pursue a career in public interest law.

“There was no other choice,” she said. “I went to lots of law schools, and though they said they were interested in public interest law, when you asked the questions, they weren’t. It was Kent where I saw a legal community that cared and supported students.”

“I sat in this auditorium 10 years ago as a 3L in this public interest program,” added Ashley Olson '12, associate director of Ascend Justice, which received the event’s premier honor, the Ronald W. Staudt Public Interest Partner Award, “and I’m so grateful for the continued work and support that Chicago-Kent provides for students to help support and pursue careers and public interest.”

Over the 2021–2022 winter break, the majority of interns involved in Ascend Justice’s winter immersion program were from Chicago-Kent.

Jaylin McClinton ’22 received the award for outstanding pro bono and community service leadership. McClinton volunteered for 21 different community-based nonprofits and legal aid organizations, and currently serves on the boards of nine of them. McClinton is also a former president of Chicago-Kent’s Black Law Student Association and its chapter of the American Constitutional Society.

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others,” McClinton said, quoting Gandhi. “I hope today’s event serves as a stark reminder and a catalyst of this obligation and that we all commit to paying it forward and help lift others up.”

Vodenik also noted that Chicago-Kent’s Student Humanitarian Network, formerly the Student Hurricane Network, renewed its annual trip to New Orleans to provide pro bono services to underprivileged residents over the 2021 winter break. Eleven students went this year.

Chicago-Kent also celebrated its inaugural Student Bar Association Service Week Initiative this year, offering students the opportunity to volunteer their time on local pro bono and community service projects.

Eleven Chicago-Kent students received their J.D. certificates in public interest law this semester; 18 students received a certificate of service for completing 50 hours of pro bono work; and five students received the Distinguished Public Service Award for 250 hours of pro bono work.

Sydney Slyfield ’22 topped the list with 465 hours of community service at the Children’s Legal Center, a Chicago-based nonprofit that works with immigrant families.

The event also recognized Nicole Jansma, Audrey Yaujin Park, and Kevin Scott for receiving Justice John Paul Stevens Public Interest Fellowships in 2022; 11 students received 2022 Alvin H. Baum Fellowships for their work at Chicago-Kent’s Environmental and Energy Law Clinic; and seven students received Kent Justice Foundation Fellowships. Students who volunteered for the college’s Constitutional Democracy Project and Patent Hub were also recognized at the event.

If you are interested in supporting the Public Interest Center, please contact Chrissy Brown, Chicago-Kent's assistant dean of advancement, at cbrown67@kentlaw.iit.edu; or Cheryl Price, gift officer, at cprice7@kentlaw.iit.edu.

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