As I am writing this blog, there is only one week left of DukeEngage-Miami. After all the personal rants in my previous entries, I thought this last one would be an opportunity for me to holistically reflect on the past two months.
In retrospect, I do feel that I made a considerable contribution through doing outreach that is critical to the pro bono program’s success and taking on office duties to save other attorneys’ time so that they could serve more clients. As tech-savvy Millennials, we were also able to come up with creative, time-efficient ways to complete tasks in an office where technological resources are lacking. The experience was particularly meaningful to me, as I believe strongly in Dade Legal Aid’s mission in providing free legal services to vulnerable populations. On the flip side, since Dade Legal Aid does less advocacy work compared to Legal Services of Greater Miami or Catholic Legal Services, but mainly focuses on one-on-one client, I wasn’t able to gain much exposure to the legal aspect of the organization through doing research or learning more about legal writing.
At least to me, the DukeEngage experience seemed more about seeing than doing. As an undergraduate student, I had limited skills to serve a legal organization. Most of the work that Bella and I took on was logistical: inputting and updating attorney info, making promotional materials and conducting outreach to bar associations and law firms for our pro bono program, referring cases to attorneys or contributing to the newsletter. Apart from that, we were invited to a variety of hearings and trials in court as well as events, everything from a staff training on child abuse, a bankruptcy workshop where we table for Legal Aid, a panel for startups at Miami LAB, to the Federal Court Observer Program. We met all types of professionals, from attorneys, social workers, judges, community foundation directors to entrepreneurs. Karen, the executive director, made us feel at home. It seemed that her priority was for us to learn as much as possible about different careers in law, more than anything else. All in all, it felt like a pre-professional experience instead of a service experience.
Indeed, my takeaways from this program align with DukeEngage’s slogan: “Challenge yourself. Change your world.” The program seemed to be designed to be more about me than serving the community. This is one of the most controversial aspects of this prestigious civic engagement program often brought up by students and faculty. There is definitely immense value in encouraging learning outside the classroom and fostering cross-cultural awareness, but whether DukeEngage should frame itself as a service-focused program or otherwise is a different story. Additionally, only one of the three work sites this year, Catholic Legal Services, focuses on immigration, a main theme of the Miami program. Dade Legal Aid in fact does not accept immigration cases, at all. Our work sites all have vastly different practice areas, which made it more challenging to have a unifying theme to our experiences. Some reframing of the Miami program’s themes and goals, in my opinion, might make reflections and enrichment activities even more valuable in tying it all together.
Despite these potential areas of improvement, I did have a great summer as a whole and I am super grateful for everyone who made it happen. It also helped me see Miami in a different light, characterized not by beaches, parties and tourists, but rather by a vibrant, distinct culture and pressing issues such as gentrification, social inequality and climate change. The heat prevented me from exploring the city as much as I wanted, but I had a wonderful time bonding and playing board games with the group (going out was always an ordeal for us). I am lucky to have been in a group with such diverse backgrounds and personalities, and will miss everyone tons.