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Oregon Lawyer Online

How They Spent Their Summers

Three Oregon Law students engaged in life-changing work this summer

For most college students, summer does not entail a cross-country bike trek or jaunts down Central American streets lined with razor wire.

For three University of Oregon School of Law students, however, this summer meant precisely that, presenting three challenging internship and volunteer opportunities that helped shape their futures in law and refine their perspective on life.

Across the northern states, Kyle Smith biked sometimes 100 miles a day to repair and refurbish low-cost housing in rural communities.

Meanwhile, in Washington D.C., Nadia Dahab worked with leading environmental law litigators on issues ranging from Clean Air Act compliance to natural resource damage.

Elsewhere, in the humid city of San Salvador, Will Johnson met with government officials and human rights groups on behalf of torture survivors and victims of forced disappearance from the El Salvadoran Civil War.

All three opportunities presented their share of challenges. There is no road map for law school. With the wide array of legal options available, students can accrue experience in a variety of ways, from standard internships to more intrepid volunteer opportunities.

Kyle Smith on his fifth riding day, passing over Lake Champlain from New Hampshire into New York

University of Oregon School of Law student Kyle Smith decided to eschew the normal path of office work and formal attire for a taste of adventure. He spent the summer biking across the northern United States as a route leader for the Bike & Build program – an organization dedicated to assisting low-cost homeowners.

Smith’s trip began in the hills of New England, winded around the Great Lakes, charged through the plains of the northern Midwest, ascended the Colorado Divide and crossed Washington Pass in the Cascades to deposit the team of 33 riders on the Pacific Coast. Along the way, Smith and the team constructed handicap ramps, weeded overgrown front yards, mended fences, removed a chimney and helped the embattled town of Minot, North Dakota, clean up after a season of devastating floods.

The trip provided Smith with a renewed perspective on life. While working in Beloit, Wisconsin, there were drug deals taking place in neighboring houses, liquor bottles scattered across the street and a recent murder scene one block away.

“It’s become easy to feel like we’re traveling through the world in our own, safe, harmonious little Bike & Build bubble,” Smith wrote in an Oregon Lawyer Online blog. “The experience working in such a tough neighborhood in Wisconsin made the cause we’re supporting much more real.”

And while his experience nets him no school credit or internship hours, his work this summer has “defied explanation.”

“The people skills, management experience, problem solving abilities, and spiritual growth I’m gaining are far more valuable than any internship, graduate course, or real-world job I’ve had in my 28 years,” Smith writes.

“Meeting so many new and diverse people has had me thinking a lot lately about where I am in my own life, where I want it to go, and how I’m going to get there.”

Nadia Dahab on the streets of Washington D.C.

Nadia Dahab found similar guidance while interning at Beveridge and Diamond, one of the leading firms in environmental law, land use and litigation.

Along with four other students from law schools across the country, Dahab learned the finer points of statutes, regulations, and case law that make up the environmental law field. She also worked with wastewater treatment plants on Clean Air Act compliance, litigated the merits of biosolids and solid waste importation ordinances and applied the Clean Water Act to a technical issue of storm water discharges.

The summer also presented a host of writing and research projects, which culminated in Dahab’s publication in the American Bar Association Journal. “Writing about everything from toxic tort law to class actions, land use permit extension acts and natural resource damages, the summer has definitely been full of opportunity.”

In addition to her work with the firm, she was able to observe three litigators from Beveridge and Diamond try a case at the Washington D.C. Supreme Court.

Overall, the summer presented Dahab with a range of practical experience to use going forward with her work. “I feel like I really got the chance to better understand what a career in environmental law might actually be like and how I could contribute once I graduate from Oregon,” she said.

Will Johnson at the Izalco Volcano

Far from the bustle of the capital, Will Johnson traveled to El Salvador to work with Pro Búsqueda, an NGO working on behalf of victims of forced disappearance during the Salvadoran Civil War – a decade long conflict that still affects the country today.

“I originally decided to intern here to learn more about the legal reparations that Pro Búsqueda seeks on behalf of the victims of forced disappearance and to investigate the problems they encounter related to the corruption and impunity in the Salvadoran government, especially the judicial system,” Johnson said.

Through his work, Johnson heard the stories of women who looked for their children for 25 years and listened to accounts of those who were separated from their families at military gunpoint. While Pro Búsqueda proved the existence of nearly 900 “disappeared” children and reunited close to 400 of them with living family members, Johnson found that many still do not receive legal reparations or recognition of their struggles from the current government. They continue to face barriers of thick bureaucracy and outright doubt that their experiences even occurred.

In addition, Pro Búsqueda has uncovered an organized structure to the disappearances that benefited and involved local lawyers, public, military officials, and state institutions. They have revealed cases where the abducted children were sold as orphans to unknowing parents in the United States and Europe.

Despite these glaring problems, Johnson still sees room for improvement for these victims. “I came to the conclusion that here in El Salvador, as with many other HR regimes around the world, there continues to be a huge (and possibly increasing) gap between acknowledging the HR situation and making formal recommendations, and actual implementation of necessary changes,” he said.

The summer has presented Johnson with a number of emotionally trying experiences and heartbreaking stories of loss. His experience, however, much like Smith’s cross-country bike trip and Dahab’s internship, has been rewarding.

“I am as of yet unsure whether my summer here is more beneficial for my legal education or my international studies degree,” he said. “But I do know one thing: However I use these experiences in the future, I am certain that I made the right choice by coming here.”

Apart from gaining knowledge for a future career, the opportunity of working with and learning from a subset of war survivors and passionate lawyers from a different country and culture has given Johnson further insight into the life of those who live on the outliers of society. His experience highlights similar revelations from the excursions of Smith and Dahab – that the summer between school terms can be just as important for life experience as legal careers.

“Many people feel like the outsider every day of their life,” he said. “I think it is good for all of us to step outside our box from time to time and see what it is like to be the odd one out.”

To read more about Kyle, Nadia, and Will’s summer adventures, visit the Summer Adventures in Law blog.


Oregon Law » Oregon Lawyer Online » Autumn 2011 » How They Spent Their Summers