Law school reaches out to area high school kids

Katsirake:ron McComber from Kahnawake Survival School.
Katsirake:ron McComber from Kahnawake Survival School.

By Pascal Zamprelli

On their way back to Kahnawake, one of their teachers says, a group of high school  students couldn’t stop talking about their day at McGill. In the words of one student, “it wasn’t as boring as I thought it was going to be.”

Coming from a teenager, of course, this qualifies as glowing praise, and could mark the beginning of a long and mutually beneficial relationship.

Hosted by the Faculty of Law, the student group had spent the day touring the campus, part of an innovative program that has been running since 2006. The aims of the High School Outreach Program (HSOP) are to foster in young students a curiosity about the law and an understanding of the relevance of law to a young person’s day-to-day life; to develop mentorship relationships between high school students and law students; and to provide information about university studies. It targets students who are living in  difficult socio-economic situations.

“The idea is to catch students who are way off the radar of law schools,” said Charmaine Lyn, Assistant Dean of Law (External Affairs) and the person responsible for getting the project off the ground. “Kids who don’t have lawyers or university graduates in the family. Kids who are told, and who believe, that finding a job is what you do after high school. That’s the framework.”

The partnership with each high school – four are currently involved in the project – is developed over three sessions, the first two of which see McGill law students visit the schools.

“It’s been fun,” said Thomas McMorrow, a doctoral student and HSOP co-ordinator. He explained that about 25 volunteer law students have visited more than 300 students from the four high schools. “What we’ve been trying to do is put them into the position of decision makers and say ‘look, you’re thinking about questions of law and justice every day.’ We can’t be their parents, their guidance counselors, or their teachers, and we can’t preach to them either. So what we do is get them excited about learning and get them thinking about it differently.”

The final session has the high school students, like those from the Kahnawake Survival School, visit McGill to learn about its facilities and hear from guest speakers on the links between law and everything from hip-hop culture to high art.

McMorrow and Lyn were both quick to point out, however, that the benefits of the program flow both ways. “There is a lot that we get as a community that is invaluable. It’s win/win – we are the beneficiaries as much as anyone,” said Lyn.

She believes that diversifying the pool of applicants to law school – and university – can enrich the experience of all students who attend, drawing parallels with her own path in life. “I wasn’t supposed to go to law school,” she said. “I’m coming at it from having had the benefit of one or two people along the path of my high school career push me.”

The notion of learning from diversity, and programs like HSOP, are “not about affirmative action or changing standards for groups of people. It’s about expanding the pool as early as possible. You put the idea in a young person’s head that there are choices, that they have options.”

Furthermore, Lyn explained, HSOP is the type of program that perfectly reflects McGill University’s mission statement, in which “service to society” figures prominently. “We have the tools and the ability to connect with people right on our doorstep,” she said, and she believes resources, skills, and knowledge can be pooled across the University to co-ordinate and expand its outreach mission. “We’re doing quite a lot on very little, and I think it’s got phenomenal potential. [HSOP] is going to make a difference to kids’ lives, but this is the tip of the iceberg of what we could

be doing.”