Field work--Wayne State Law School students promote cultural awareness with field trips

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By Mike Scott

Legal News

By understanding various cultures, law school students can become better lawyers, professionals and people. And given that metropolitan Detroit is one of the most culturally diverse places in the United States, it makes sense for those students to take advantage of such opportunities.

That is exactly what happened over the last few weeks for a group of Wayne State University Law School students who took trips to the Holocaust Museum last March in West Bloomfield and the Arab American Museum in Dearborn in April.

The process started in November when a group of student leaders--along with members of the faculty and administration--began meeting in an effort to create more programs that address and/or celebrate diversity and social identity in the law school and the legal profession. One of the things the students, faculty, and administration members recognized in their planning sessions was a dearth of collaborative efforts among the student organizations to highlight and celebrate diversity of the student body.

"We wanted to bring various student groups together instead of polarizing people," said Ruby Robinson, a second year law school student at Wayne State and president of the school's Jewish Law Students Association. "We're all so focused on our own legal careers and studies but there are benefits to all of us knowing more about other cultures."

Robinson was involved in trying to find a speaker who could address the student body about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process from a moderate perspective. But while listening to a story about the liberation of Auschwitz, he came to a conclusion that a trip to the Holocaust Memorial Center might be more effective. Robinson contacted Zainab Baydoun, president of the Middle East Law School Student Association, to plan a subsequent trip to the Arab American National Museum.

Baydoun and others were excited about the idea.

"We student leaders began working on putting together the visits and encouraged not only members of our student groups to attend, but also the law school community at large," Robinson said.

Nearly 25 students and faculty took part in the two visits. The turnout may have been higher if they weren't scheduled so close to the spring break, Robinson said. However, in many ways the small groups were beneficial to those who attended because there was a significant amount of interaction among the participants.

"I think some of the students were skeptical beforehand but everyone who went really felt that it was a positive learning experience," Robinson said. "It was fun to share your background with others from different cultures and learn how we really had very many similarities. I realized there were a number of parallels between how Jewish Americans and Arab Americans have been treated at times."

Wayne State University Law School Dean Robert Ackerman attended both events as well.

There was no skepticism at all from Baydoun. The third-year law school student said the association was not as active in the overall campus community as she would have liked and once Baydoun became president she sought to raise the image of the association within the student body.

The key is that groups from different backgrounds, including Muslim and Arab Americans and Jewish Americans, can work together even if they have political differences. That can be something difficult to overcome for some law school students, many of whom by their very nature have strong opinions and are outspoken.

"Many lawyers are very passionate about certain issues they believe in--perhaps more so than professionals in other industries," Baydoun said. "As much as many of the students in the Middle East Law School Student Association are passionate, we all know it is important to embrace other cultures regardless of any political issues."

In fact, Baydoun believes that having empathy for other cultures is expected when you understand more about them.

"As we visited both sites it became very clear that both cultures are more similar than I or anyone else could imagine," she said.

Knowing more about other cultures can be very beneficial while in law school, because it allows students to more effectively engage with other classmates, Robinson said. It enhances the classroom experience, but also has value long after the bar has been passed.

"I think we see law school as a microcosm of the entire legal community. So many of the students we attend school with now we will be working with or against in the future as part of our career," Robinson said.

The organizers of these events considered the two visits a great first step, and the hope is that it will be used as a platform to meet new people and teach diversity in the future. Similar visits may be planned for this fall or next spring, with the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit perhaps being added as another trip to help further engage the school's African American student community, Robinson said.

"This can be a strong personal and professional experience," Robinson added. "We'd love to expand such trips in the coming months and get more students to participate."

While Baydoun will be graduating this term, she hopes and anticipates that some of her fellow Middle Eastern American law school students also will embrace such an effort next year and in the years ahead.

"We don't want to limit this to just our two cultures wither," Baydoun said. "To put it simply, this could be a stepping stone for further dialogue."

Published: Thu, May 6, 2010