During the summer, The Office for Institutional Equity offered internship opportunities to two Duke Law students interested in learning first-hand about the office's administrative role in upholding the policy on discrimination, harassment and sexual misconduct. With the goal to broaden OIE's engagement with the Duke community, Kimberly Hewitt, vice president for institutional equity, and Cynthia Clinton, assistant vice president for harassment and discrimination prevention and compliance, worked with the law school to develop an exciting and immersive paid internship experience.
"Jabrina Robinson approached us about having an LLM student intern," said Hewitt. "Last year, Bruce Elvin from the law school approached us about having a J.D. student as an intern, and because we had so much work, we thought we could keep two students busy this year." The Master of Laws (LLM) program introduces foreign law school graduates to the U.S. legal system through advanced courses in specialized areas of the law. Most participants in the program possess years of legal experience behind them and have previously held professional positions as judges, prosecutors, and academics, but a few are also talented recent law school graduates.
The pandemic especially complicated participation for many LLM students who did not feel comfortable traveling to start the program last fall. "In response to this unprecedented situation," said Jabrina Robinson, director of the LLM program at Duke Law, "we divided our LLM Class of 2021 into two cohorts." The first cohort started in the fall 2020 semester and the remaining 51 arrived in spring 2021. "They have shown remarkable resilience in the face of travel restrictions, visa limitations, online learning, and lack of in-person social interactions," she said. The spring cohort has continued the program through the summer and is expected to graduate in December of this year. "For the first time, we have LLMs seeking summer opportunities, and we want to promote meaningful engagement opportunities for them," added Robinson.
Due to the increase in compliance cases and the need for help with legal research and support with case-load management, OIE developed two internship opportunities. "We were really looking for students whose backgrounds indicated an interest in the work in OIE," said Hewitt, "so some thread connected to discrimination law or community work that might be connected to diversity, equity, and inclusion." Internship opportunities outside of Duke became scarce as a result of the pandemic, and the need for campus partners to work with the law school grew. "Thankfully," said Robinson, "the Office for Institutional Equity agreed to host one of our students. Students were also hosted on-campus outside of the law school with DUMAC, Duke Bass and Duke University Press." OIE's program is designed to give students broad experience in investigation support, benchmarking research with policy development along with support in the policy review process, drafting training and summarizing Title IX procedural elements, and other facets of work in the compliance area of the office.
Issues of compliance, particularly for protected groups, drew LLM student, Valery Oliva Reyes, to the OIE internship opportunity. Born in Miami to immigrant parents from Guatemala, Reyes grew up in Guatemala after the family returned when she was a toddler. While in college, she worked as a tutor for marginalized communities in Guatemala City. "During this time," said Reyes, " I became aware of how vulnerable many of these children were within their communities." This sparked her interest in law and advocacy, which led to her participation in sexual assault and human exploitation cases in her free time. She subsequently pursued a career in law and worked for a human rights and constitutional law boutique firm specializing in cases dealing with indigenous rights violations and exploitation of their territories by foreign investors.
This experience has led to a combined interest in human rights and corporate law that has served her well in working on Title IX cases and incidents of discrimination against protected groups during her internship. "Learning about protected groups and the scope of Title IX has been one of the main learning topics," said Reyes. Though she found adjusting to a new legal system a bit of a challenge, the combination of past experience and the hands-on nature of the internship helped to clarify her understanding. "Part of this job is also intuition — learning when to trust your instincts and when to leave room for doubt — a skill that lawyers must have, as well. Working in this program has shown me how people tell the same story, but from their own point of view, changing details that may seem small in the large scheme of things but can fully alter our sense of what is true and what is fiction. I am sure that these skills [will] be essential in my future professional development."
A 3L at Duke Law with a background in environmental science, Alex Peterson already had an interest in workplace discrimination and other civil rights issues after having taken an employment discrimination course last spring. "The legal intern position with OIE struck me as a great opportunity to see firsthand how Duke evaluates and resolves complaints about harassment and discrimination across the university," said Peterson. Through researching best practices for university diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and assisting with compliance investigations, he has gained real-life experience in a higher education setting. "I've particularly enjoyed writing draft investigation reports which involves analyzing evidence gathered and interviews conducted during the investigation process, then applying the university policy on prohibited discrimination, harassment, and misconduct to different factual scenarios," he added, and he "would highly recommend a position with OIE to any law student interested in anti-discrimination law."
The internships generally last 3-4 months with this year's program ending in mid-August. "It’s difficult to say if we will be able to have the opportunity during the school year," stated Cynthia Clinton. "There are restrictions on the number of hours a law student can 'work;' however, there may be internships or experiential classes within the law school curriculum that could be completed through an OIE internship [in the future]." Overall, the experience has proven positive for all involved and only time will tell what additional opportunities OIE will make available for the Duke community.
By Maria Moreno
© 2021 Duke Office for Institutional Equity