By Chen-Chen Jiang, J.D. ’16
Student in the Education Law Clinic
The first time I met Jessica*, she sat quietly in her living room as her mother explained to us that she had suffered serious abuse and had missed a significant amount of school work. The traumatic experiences had left her with post-traumatic stress. She attempted to confide in her friends, but instead of finding comfort, she was bullied. Faced with this bullying and a school environment that could not serve her special needs, Jessica chose to stay in the one remaining place where she still felt safe: her home.
But what struck me the most about her was not the incredible amount of adversity that she had overcome at a young age; it was her dedication to education. In that living room during our first meeting, one of the first things she softly said was “I just want to learn.” Someday, she said, she wanted to be a lawyer, too. From that moment on, she wasn’t just the student I was advocating for; she became part of our advocacy team.
Jessica bravely decided that she would prepare a statement to read at the meeting with school district representatives, where we would argue for a different school placement. I excitedly told her that she was engaging in work that real attorneys, and certainly law students in clinical programs, perform on a daily basis. She learned how to draft the initial statement, trying her best to capture the complex struggles that she faced. Together, we went through an editing process, going line by line through her statement to figure out the best way to present it. When it was done, she practiced delivering the statement to her mother, clinical supervisors, and me.
Over the time that I worked with her, Jessica transformed from a quiet, timid girl to a poised young lady, confident to speak for herself. The day before our meeting with the school district representatives, at our last check-in, she looked directly at me and said, “I’m ready. I’m ready for them to hear my story.” At that moment, I realized the true power of legal advocacy. Representing low-income students is not only about securing the end result; it is also about giving those who are not always heard a voice. It is about introducing them to a foreign system and helping them to develop the ability to navigate that system themselves. And most importantly, it is about building in each client the belief that their stories, their struggles, and their experiences matter and must be shared to ensure a better working system for those who come after them.
On the day of the meeting, Jessica was nervous. She was going to share her story for the first time in a room full of adults. I was nervous, too. I was not sure how these adults would react to her words. As soon as she began, her tears overcame her. It looked as if she would not be able to resume. But after a few moments, and a deep breath, she finished her statement. At the end, the director of special education in the district personally commended her for having the courage to speak up and thanked her for doing so.
We secured a different educational placement for Jessica that day. But the greater victory was the confidence instilled in her to fight for what she deserved. About three months after the meeting, Jessica’s mom called to let me know that she was thriving at her new school. This came as no surprise; she, like so many other students, was primed for success if given the appropriate support. I have no doubt that, someday, she will be the lawyer giving those without a voice a platform to speak.
*Name has been changed to protect confidentiality.