When three students with an interest in human rights get together in the same room with their Leadership Legacy alumni mentor, attorney Jeff Ment ’89 (BUS), there’s a sense of purpose that suggests that they are a formidable force as a group. But, they also stand out as individuals and they bring different skills to the table.
The three students in question are Celia Guillard ’14 (CLAS), Emily Block ’15 (CLAS), and Julianne Norton ’15 (CLAS). All are participants in UConn’s Leadership Legacy Experience, a program offered through the Office of Leadership Programs in the Division of Student Affairs. The Legacy program enables some of the University’s most exceptional student leaders to enter into a comprehensive year-long leadership enhancement experience that includes being paired with alumni mentors, such as Ment.
The role of an alumni mentor varies, depending on the student’s interests and the mentor’s area of expertise. The relationship usually involves meeting with students on a regular basis, offering advice, and sharing experiences that may help them develop their leadership skills while making connections that will enable them to further their careers in their chosen fields.
Joseph Briody, associate director of student development and learning in the Division of Student Affairs, says one of the most interesting things about Leadership Legacy is that there are no ‘typical’ mentor experiences.
“When we match students to mentors,” he says, “we’re not expecting that they will necessarily share all the same interests initially, because every match has potential for development. In this case, however, there’s been a kind of ‘kismet’ with this group – with Jeff Ment’s expertise and each of these students having a commitment to human rights. It’s a combination that has had a positive effect on everyone involved on every level.”
This year, when he met Block and Norton and learned of their interest in human rights, Ment asked if they would be interested getting involved in an immigration case. Based on their enthusiastic response, he contacted the Human Rights Law Clinic at UConn’s School of Law and asked for an ‘assignment.’ The case of a Libyan student currently enrolled at the University of Bridgeport was at the top of the pile and Ment and his student cohorts jumped right in.
A native of Libya whose family supported former ruler Muammar Gaddafi, this young man does not want to return to his native country because he fears retribution from the current political regime – one that toppled Gaddafi in a revolution in 2011.
Ment actually specializes in civil law, not immigration issues. However, several years ago he was approached by a friend concerning a local family from South America that was seeking asylum in this country. Already a mentor in the Leadership Legacy program, he was able to involve his Legacy student at that time, Alexandra Kuehnle ’11 (CLAS) in researching immigration options. Thanks to their efforts, the family was granted asylum. He is hoping for a similar outcome in this case.
“This is a meaningful experience for Celia, Julianne, and Emily,” says Ment, “because this project involves the future of an individual who they have actually met and talked to, not just someone they’ve read about in a book. They know his story and the fact that he has a brother in Libya who has been tortured. This student is depending, in part, on their dedication to preparing the material that will be used to argue his case at an immigration hearing. This is a real world experience.”
Guillard, an Honors student, has a double major in political science and international relations, with a minor in human rights. Last summer, she was a research intern at Social Accountability International in New York City. For the past year and a half, she has been a research assistant for the CIRI Human Rights Data Project based at UConn and has been coding countries based on how their society’s discriminate against women. As a UNESCO Student Ambassador, she has also been leading a campaign at UConn to raise campus awareness of human rights abuses within the chocolate industry, as well as promoting ethically sourced chocolate options.
A resident of Windham, she initially worked with Ment last year when she was a Leadership Legacy student. She’s back working on the immigration project this year because of her interest in political refugees and asylum cases.
“I was officially a Leadership Legacy student last year,” she says, “but when I found out that Jeff would be mentoring students again this year and working on an immigration case, I really wanted to be a part of it.”
Current Leadership Legacy students, Block and Norton, are both from Trumbull. Block is a political science and human rights double major. She is chief of external relations for UConn’s Model United Nations, and a youth development intern for the American Red Cross. This summer, she will be interning with the International Institute of Connecticut, working to resettle immigrants and refugees in the state.
Norton is an Honors student pursuing an individualized major in transglobal perspectives. She was the recipient of a 2012 Holster Grant, and spent her summer completing her grant project, “Canvassing Generations: Art Through Post-memory,” which chronicled the memories of the Holocaust through four generations of her family.
“Leadership Legacy has been a great experience,” Block says, “and working on this case has really opened my eyes. In fact, I’m even thinking about going to law school now that I’ve had a taste of what it’s like.”
While Norton has not been swayed towards the study of law, she says, “I definitely think the most interesting part of the Leadership Legacy experience so far has been the networking; getting to work on this case is above and beyond anything I would get to do in the classroom – especially as a sophomore.”
The students are now in the information-gathering stage of their project and the next step will be to submit a lengthy application for asylum to immigration authorities later this summer. Ment says, “Thanks to Celia, Julianne and Emily, we will go into the immigration hearing so well prepared it will be hard for the judge to say no to the applicant. And if for any reason we’re not successful in the first round, we’ll be ready with all the facts to go back for an appeal. I can pretty much guarantee that there won’t be any applicants [seeking asylum] in that courtroom that are better prepared than we are.”