Natalie Gomez-Velez, a professor at the CUNY School of Law and a PSC member, teaches law students at CUNY School of Law’s evening program, which will graduate its first class this academic year.
It was several years ago when Lauren DiMartino, who was a career strategist at Guttman Community College (a HEO position), was thinking about ways she could advance at her job and develop in her career. One of the places she turned to was her PSC-CUNY contract, which had tuition waivers for graduate-level education at CUNY. She’s now a student at CUNY School of Law’s part-time program, which enrolled its first class in the fall of 2015 and allows working professionals like DiMartino to take classes at night toward their law degree.
“For me it was like, ‘Why would I not be taking advantage of this [benefit] and getting more credentials?’” DiMartino said, speaking about the contract’s tuition benefit.
At the end of this academic year, she’ll graduate law school, take the bar exam and go on to clerk for a federal judge in the sixth circuit.
For many, law school tuition is a barrier to entry, and the CUNY School of Law is an affordable option, even when compared to other public law schools in the region. Two semesters of in-state tuition at the law school’s part-time program costs a little more than $10,500 per year, and for many PSC members the tuition costs are around half that amount because of union benefits.
For full-time faculty, HEOs, CLTs and most full-time CUNY employees in the PSC bargaining unit, the contract grants tuition waivers for up to six credits per semester during the academic year for graduate-level education. Adjuncts who have taught one or more classes in the same department for ten consecutive fall and spring semesters also qualify for tuition waivers for up to one course. These waivers are done on a space-available basis.
In this round of contract bargaining, the PSC demands an expansion of eligibility for tuition waivers. The union is proposing that children and stepchildren of full-time faculty and staff covered by the PSC-CUNY contract receive undergraduate tuition waivers.
“As academic employees, whether we’re faculty or staff, we understand the importance of a good quality education, and that’s why we want to expand tuition benefits to our members’ children,” PSC First Vice President Andrea Vásquez told Clarion. “The more access that we have to the educational programs at CUNY, the better it is for the whole CUNY community.”
For teaching adjuncts, the union demands that the current eligibility requirements in the contract should be reduced. Rather than requiring them to teach 10 semesters in the same department at the same college, the requirement should be lessened to six.
“There are a lot of people who would like to go to law school but can’t afford to do so,” said Frank Deale, a professor at the law school and its evening program. “For a lot of people, dropping out of the workforce to become a lawyer is a huge investment.”
There’s a host of reasons, Deale said, why professionals may go to law school while working. Some are looking to reinvent themselves, others are looking to make a pivot in their careers or advance in the jobs they already have.
A PUBLIC INTEREST MISSION
The motivation for DiMartino to attend law school was to be more effective in her work in higher education and working with students.
“I was really moved by my students’ stories and their potential and [I was] troubled by the obstacles that I felt that they were facing,” DiMartino said.
The law school’s mission, “law in the service of human needs,” is meant to be a motivating factor for its students. The school is ranked as one of the top law schools with the highest percentage of graduates going into public interest work, and its clinical program is consistently rated in the top ten in the nation. Training public interest lawyers is one the school’s goals, and another is to educate a diverse student body.
“You need to have lawyers authentically represent communities that are underrepresented or you can’t guarantee equal justice for those communities,” said Mary Lu Bilek, the dean of the CUNY School of Law. “That means that you need to create access for people from those communities.”
DIVERSE STUDENT BODY
The part-time program also gives a chance for prospective students who can’t afford to take a break from work to get a legal education. While a traditional law school curriculum is three years, the part-time program spreads courses over four years including a required summer session after the first academic year. Students can move from being a part-time student to a full-time student, or vice versa, as their needs change while attending school. Bilek said that they look for barriers to access, and actively recruit people from underrepresented communities.
The school’s Pipeline to Justice program accepts both promising applicants who were initially denied admission to CUNY Law and CUNY undergraduates. The program prepares them for law school.
“We have the license to follow the CUNY mission of reaching out to communities that have not had access to the law, and that’s a real animating factor in the evening program,” said Franklin Siegel, a PSC member and a distinguished lecturer at the law school. “It gives us access to people who mainstream law schools are not interested in.”
Oscar Deonarine, who grew up in Queens and graduated from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, attended the Pipeline to Justice program, and now he’s a student in the CUNY part-time law program.
“Growing up I always wanted to go to law school, but then I kind of thought it wasn’t for me … because of my circumstances.”
After Deonarine graduated John Jay, he found a job as a paralegal at the CUNY Office of the General Counsel. Attorneys working there encouraged him to become a lawyer, and once the part-time program at the CUNY School of Law was announced, he jumped at the chance to pursue the degree.
Deonarine, is now in his fourth year. He still works for CUNY full-time, gets the tuition waivers and attends classes and clinics at night. Juggling it all, he said, isn’t impossible.
“It takes a lot of sacrifice. It takes a lot of time management,” Deonarine said. “It is very doable, actually, once you’re determined and you’re ready to make the sacrifices that you need.”