Summer Teaching Assistants Work to Build a More Diverse and Inclusive Legal Profession


Things came full circle for Ashley Williams ’21 as she settled in front of her computer for the opening of this year’s Ronald H. Brown Law School Prep Program for College Studentsthe award-winning pipeline initiative of the Ronald H. Brown Center for Civil Rights at St. John’s Law. 

She was one of five Law School students tapped to be Ron Brown Prep Program Teaching Assistants (TAs) during a unique summer of fully remote programming that included July’s LSAC Prelaw Undergraduate Scholars (PLUS) Program and August’s High School Sports Law Program. Williams was thrilled to take on such important work. “I participated in the LSAC Plus Program when I was in college,” she says. “The experience encouraged me to apply to law school and shaped my career path. So I was excited to connect with the students this summer and guide them as the TAs in my program guided me.” 

For over 15 years, in partnership with colleges and universities across the country, the Ron Brown Prep Program has helped students from traditionally underserved and underrepresented groups—who are often the first in their families to attend college—apply to law school and pursue legal careers. This summer’s LSAC PLUS Program extended that pivotal reach to 30 college students from across the country. The High School Sports Law Program, a brand new addition to the Prep Program lineup sponsored by the NBA’s Long Island Nets and the WNBA’s New York Liberty, welcomed public high school students from all over New York City and Long Island.  

“Our law school pipeline program, which now consists of several cohorts, is emblematic of the Ron Brown Center’s commitment to support students who have faced real struggles and setbacks, and to foster diversity and inclusion in our profession,” says Professor Elaine M. Chiu, who oversees the Ron Brown Prep Program and serves as faculty director of the Ron Brown Center. “COVID-19 upended our plans for in-person teaching and learning this summerBut we pivoted with the help of wonderful partners and crafted fully virtual programs for students who were eager to gain early exposure to the study and practice of law and other important resources. 

Coordinated for St. John’s Law by Christine Kowlessar ’19 and Tatiana Orizaba-Nicoll ‘20C, the LSAC PLUS Program brought students into the virtual classroom, where they learned legal writing skills and studied property and intellectual property case law and principles. They also enjoyed community-building activities led by Williams and fellow TA Ridmila Sudasinghe ’22. There were workshops covering the law school application process and panel programs about law student life and legal careers, among other offerings.  

“I enjoyed watching the students progress in their legal knowledge throughout the month,” Sudasinghe says. “They made insightful comments in class and were very engaged in the material. I also enjoyed watching them get to know each other. As their TA, I wanted to show them that law school is not out of their reach. Their perspective and representation are vital to the legal community.” 

Like SudasingheAminah Ali ’21 found her TA experience rewarding. “I loved listening to my students in the High School Sports Law Program and learning from them,” she says about the teens, who attended lectures on sports law and civil rights and took workshops on building negotiation skills. They also learned about the business of sports, professional networking, financial literacy, and the college admissions process and participated in community engagement activities focused on social justice.  

“High schoolers are at the perfect age to grasp concepts about laws and social justice, and it’s a privilege to be able to hear their ideas on how to reform the current legal system,” Ali adds 

Benjamin Ranalli ’21, who teamed with Ali as a TA, appreciated the diversity of perspectives that the students brought to the High School Sports Law Program. “My experience as a TA this summer has reinforced my belief in the importance of diverse perspectives in problem solving,” he says. “Not only does the legal profession need to actively provide a seat at the table for individuals of diverse backgrounds, but once there it is our responsibility to cultivate an environment where all voices are genuinely heard and respected.” 

Ranalli’s and Ali’s TA teammate, Zachary Sobel ’21, joined them in praising the program and its students. “I think the thing that most excited me going in was knowing that the students went out of their way to apply to this program,” he shares. “Having a group of high school students so eager to explore sports law and negotiation theory at such a young age was such an admirable thing to me. I don’t know if I would have had the drive to do that at their age, so to see their ambition was something that really inspired me.”  

Equally inspiring, Sobel says, was watching the star-struck students engage with Nets player Garrett Temple when he made a surprise appearance on the final day of the program. “I think it was truly inspiring for the students to hear how Mr. Temple uses his platform for social change, and to learn that he plans to help better the world as a lawyer when his basketball career is over.” 

Reflecting on her experience as a TA this summer, and the bonds she forged with the students she worked with, Ashley Williams says: “I think it was very important for the students to see people of color as the program’s TAs, instructors, and speakers. Being able to see someone who comes from a similar background as you, or even just looks like you, doing something important and impressive is essential in how the students look at themselves. I could see the awe in some of the students expressions. They saw that they shouldn’t limit themselves and that they too can do what we are doing. That was incredibly meaningful to me as we work to build a truly representative legal profession.”