By Angelica Tillander
Ms. Tillander is in her second year of law school at Columbia Law School in New York. She graduated from Washington and Lee University in 2014 with dual majors in American History and Politics and a minor in Poverty and Human Capability Studies. At Columbia, she is on the board of the Domestic Violence Project, the Educational Law and Policy Society, First Generation Professionals, the Harlem Tutorial Project, the High School Law Institute, the Native American Law Student Association, and the Public Interest Law Foundation. She is also a 2L staffer on the Columbia Human Rights Law Review and a part of the Adolescent Representation Clinic.
“An elderly woman looked me straight in the eye and tearfully announced: “I’m eighty years old, and I am just waiting here to die.” I remember the sudden sense of clarity and motivation her words brought me, and I took them as an invitation to act”, writes Angelica (W&L ’14).
Although the Shepherd Program became the focal point of my education, I did not come to Washington and Lee because of it. I had a vague idea of its existence at the time that I applied, but no real sense of its scope or impact. Nor if I’m being honest, did I have a very good idea of Washington and Lee. This is perhaps not surprising, as I grew up in the Chicago metropolitan area, which may as well have been a world away from Lexington, Virginia. I was accepted to Washington and Lee in 2009 through a program called Questbridge, which matches high-achieving low-income students with top colleges and universities throughout the country. No one I knew had ever heard of Washington and Lee, and if not for the auspicious entry of Washington and Lee into the rankings of Questbridge partner schools that year, I probably never would have applied.
When I started at Washington and Lee, I felt vaguely adrift –uncertain where I fit in and how I wanted to spend my four years. I found my answer in the form of the Bonner Scholar program. Ten to twelve freshman and sophomore students are accepted to the program each year and commit to eighteen hundred hours of service work over four years. The program falls under the umbrella of Washington and Lee’s Shepherd Poverty Program. I hit the ground running with Bonner, participating in leadership development activities and volunteering throughout Rockbridge County, primarily in the schools and through Campus Kitchen at Washington and Lee, another component of the Shepherd Program.
During my undergraduate career I saw two primary patterns of involvement with the Shepherd Program. Those in the first group were interested in policy issues or wanted to knock out a general education requirement and decided to take a Shepherd course and subsequently became interested in volunteering as a result of the striking lessons they were taught about policy and inequality. Those in the second camp started with service and became involved in the academic sphere of the Shepherd program out of a desire to further that service. I happened to fall into the second camp. Before college, I had a long history of volunteering but saw it as a distinct area of my life, not an integrated piece of a larger picture, the picture being, of course, the person I wanted to be and the sort of life I hoped to live.
My volunteer experiences through the Shepherd Program helped me to integrate my passion for service with my academic and career goals and ultimately shaped who I am as a person. At the Campus Kitchen, my main service placement was an assisted living facility. I started volunteering there the summer after sophomore year when I worked as a full time intern with Campus Kitchen. That same summer a derecho swept through Rockbridge County. The assisted living facility lost electricity for over a week, so we went there every day during that period to bring meals. The clients there are mostly elderly, and many of them suffer from a physical or mental disability. There are no formal activities to speak of, and precious few visitors. Most of the residents spend the majority of their day in a small, crowded room crammed onto five or six blue plastic couches watching television, the same shows every day. On the third day without electricity, one of our clients, an elderly woman looked me straight in the eye and tearfully announced: “I’m eighty years old, and I am just waiting here to die.” I remember the sudden sense of clarity and motivation her words brought me, and I took them as an invitation to act. From that point onward, I became focused on combating issues of isolation and poverty among the elderly. I started running Bingo twice a week, and worked with other volunteers to develop capability-building activities for our clients. The residents soon began to open up, tell me about their lives, and ask me about mine. They now spend less time watching television, and more time socializing with each other and with us volunteers. I was able to explore my interests further through my coursework in the Shepherd Program and wrote my capstone paper on equal opportunity for the elderly, incorporating my volunteer experiences with objective data and interviews from service providers.
As a Poverty and Human Capability studies minor, I was constantly encouraged to ask the question, “if not me, then who?” This question cuts to the heart of who I am and what I believe. I believe in reaching out to others and working with them to build a world in which everyone is able to feel stable, safe, and secure. Long before college, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer, but I had no notion of the type of law I wanted to practice or the type of lawyer I hoped to be. It wasn’t until I became involved in the Shepherd Program and in the Rockbridge Community that I discovered my ultimate ambition: to provide a voice to low-income individuals in the legal system.
The lessons I learned in the Shepherd Program about working in partnership with those that I serve and thinking about the person-in-context have been especially useful to me as a law student. In particular, this year at the Columbia University Law School, I am part of a legal clinic that represents adolescents aging out of foster care. Before we started representing clients, we did a variety of readings and training exercises to prepare us to step out of the academic realm of law school into the role of lawyer. According to our textbook, there are two primary approaches to lawyering. The first is the traditional approach where clients lay out their concerns and the attorney offers the legal options. The second is called client-centered lawyering and involves the lawyer and the client working together to collaborate on the legal decision-making process and come up with solutions. The book cautions that lawyers erroneously may rely only on traditional lawyering when working with low-income or less-educated clients, which is a mistake because all clients, regardless of background, are the experts on their own lives. The decisions a lawyer makes will many times fundamentally change the course of a person’s life, and because of that it is important to be attuned to the needs and concerns of the client, working with him or her to find solutions. This approach to lawyering was something that made automatic sense to me when I began learning about it, in large part because of the lessons I already learned in the Shepherd program about reaching out and never down.
Through my experiences in poverty studies, I learned to appreciate the unique set of experiences that make up a life. I learned to embrace and stand up for the essential human dignity of every person. And along the way I met some great people who have given me more than I could ever repay them. I have carried these lessons with me into law school and will continue to carry them with me long into the future as I pursue a career as a public interest lawyer. My experiences in the Shepherd Program endowed me with a firm sense of justice, a life-long commitment to service, and a profound feeling of gratitude for the students, faculty, staff, and community members I had the privilege to learn alongside.