When Ash Smith selected the University of Notre Dame for her undergraduate education, she knew what she was choosing. “I really wanted to go somewhere that shared the kind of mission and values that I do. Notre Dame does a great job of promoting the idea that ‘We’re here to learn, not just to get a job but to actually help people.’ That kind of rationale really appealed to me.”
This summer, Ash will be joining the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law as a legal intern. The Shriver Center focuses its mission on knitting together diverse advocates for people living in poverty. The Center aims to promote economic justice in the realm of safety net programs, affordable housing, and the criminal justice system, among other areas. The summer internship will enable Ash to continue her work on the criminalization of poverty, by advocating for policies that enable people transitioning out of the criminal justice system to access the resources and support they need to live successful lives “on the outside.” One example of the Center’s work is support for the “Ban the Box” initiative, an effort to eliminate the felony conviction question on employment applications. Ash joins the organization in the midst of a dual-degree program at Harvard University where she will be simultaneously completing a J.D. and a Ph.D. in Sociology. This combo is one that seems natural to Ash, who sees the data-driven research within the field of sociology as a perfect complement to the policy and practice of the legal world—especially when that partnership of expertise is applied toward the problem of poverty in the United States.
During her undergraduate years, Notre Dame’s commitment to experiential learning immediately drove Ash toward local agencies that worked within the criminal justice reform movement. Studying “abstract concepts” in the classroom and applying them to “concrete realities” in a homeless shelter or in a courtroom were mutually reinforcing components that led her to major in sociology. Jennifer Warlick, Director of Notre Dame’s interdisciplinary minor in Poverty Studies, was immediately impressed with Ash’s passion for community engagement. But what really set her apart from an already exceptional group of students, Warlick remembers, was her “ambition and energy,” qualities that not only highlighted Ash’s strong work ethic but underscored her “dedication to assist citizens experiencing poverty.”
Reflecting on her experience, Ash marvels at the amount of access undergraduates receive through the SHECP program. As a first-year law student at Harvard, she admits that law students sometimes have fewer immersive opportunities in comparison to what she experienced as a full-time intern. While in London, Ash regularly interviewed clients, drafted motions, and collaborated with public defenders. While many law students spend their clinical hours representing low-income clients, Ash feels uniquely prepared for the complexities that come with poverty-related legal work. One of those critical skills, she stresses, is the ability to “be helpful without being patronizing.”
When asked about the feeling of powerlessness that sometimes accompanies poverty-related work, Ash demurs. As a sociologist, she says, more than anything, confronting the complexities of this issue deepens her curiosity about solutions, educating the public, and “figuring out what you need to do to make the world look the way you want it to.”
To read more about Ash’s experiences at the Department of Public Advocacy in London, Kentucky, read her essay.