Students Get Up Close to Poverty at Portland Pro Bono Agency

Caroline Blake ’14

Caroline Blake ’14

Joe Sherlock ’16

Joe Sherlock ’16

 

 

 

 

 

 

This summer two Bowdoin students are interacting with the subjects they study in some of their economics, government and education classes — those who are living in poverty and facing crises that can come with financial vulnerability.

By interning at the Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project, Caroline Blake ’14 and Joe Sherlock ’16 are also benefiting from, and contributing to, a longstanding partnership between the college and the agency. Since the agency was founded in 1983, hundreds of Bowdoin students — often aspiring lawyers — have volunteered or interned there, according to Lin Martin-Hunt, who coordinates the organization’s student and community volunteers.

Martin-Hunt says she’s observed that the Bowdoin student workers possess not just intelligence, but also a high level of personal responsibility and commitment to public service. “When you have one of these qualities, that’s fine, but all three make for an amazing volunteer or intern,” she said.

Both Sherlock and Blake have Preston Public Interest Career grants, from Bowdoin’s funded internship program, to pursue what would have been an unpaid internship. Bowdoin’s donor-funded grants, overseen by Career Planning, allow students to explore possible career paths during the summer.

Classes and books really don’t convey the stress of a vet with post-traumatic stress disorder when he’s going to be foreclosed on.”

—Joe Sherlock ’16

Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project demands that its volunteers not just be interested in the law, but also be steadfast in their commitment to the job, according to Sherlock. He started at MVLP last semester. “You can’t bail,” he pointed out, “because if you do you’re bailing on real people who are having real-world problems. If you don’t go, someone might not be able to file for bankruptcy on time or they will have their home foreclosed on.”

Sherlock, who grew up in Haverhill, Mass., says his parents instilled in him a strong sense of social justice. As soon as he matriculated at Bowdoin last fall, Sherlock sought out a service opportunity in the legal field. “It’s a coverall for some of the things I’m interested in — law, social justice, economics,” he explained.

Caroline Blake, who is from Raymond, Maine, began volunteering with MVLP last winter. She will start her summer internship in July when she returns from a semester abroad in Argentina. After focusing her volunteer efforts in the past few years on education, Blake said she has more recently sought out opportunities in law.  “Through my studies at Bowdoin, I became very interested in the United States legal system and in public interest law, and last year I decided to pursue new service projects focused on social justice,” she wrote in an email.

Bowdoin Students Here, There and Everywhere
To learn about other Bowdoin students interning, working or volunteering around the world, check out our new interactive map.

Sarah Seames, director of the McKeen Center, said the MVLP internship exposes students to the legal field, as well as deepens their understanding of the complicated issues confronting many Mainers.

Both students said the MVLP humanizes their classroom studies, and in turn their classroom studies shed light on their work at the agency. In particular, Sherlock said two courses he took last semester, Education 101: Contemporary American Education and Economics 211: Poverty and Redistribution, gave him context for his interactions with clients. “It was a really cool semester because I would learn about the genesis of poverty, and do a lot of analysis on poverty and the programs to alleviate poverty, and then go in [to the agency] on Mondays to talk to the people who were experiencing poverty.”

But none of his readings fully prepared him for the work. “You can read about poverty in a lot of different courses but you don’t understand what it’s like to have a mother bawling her eyes out because her parental rights are being taken away,” Sherlock described. “Classes and books really don’t convey the stress of a vet with post-traumatic stress disorder when he’s going to be foreclosed on.”

Blake said that as a government and legal studies major, her studies of late have focused on public policy and the United States legal system. “My academic work on these topics has shown me that the social problems that exist in the United States — poverty, inequality, etc.— are shaped in large part by our country’s laws,” she wrote. While she acknowledged the important contributions of charities and nonprofits, she said she has come to believe the most effective way to tackle social issues is with a systems-level approach. “And I think that a career in public interest law would enable me to do that,” she added.

This summer Blake and Sherlock are continuing duties they had as volunteers this past year, including conducting screenings and doing intake interviews of potential clients. The agency’s phone lines never stop ringing from people in desperate straights, and the small organization can only meet a fraction of the need, according to Sherlock.  As interns, he and Blake also are assisting attorneys on consultations, entering data into a legal database, attending case meetings, and participating in Brunch and Learns, where interns and volunteers listen to presentation from legal experts and attorneys.

Through his work at MVLP, Sherlock said he’s acquiring a grounding in a wide area of the law, from family law to bankruptcy, parental rights, foreclosures, and unemployment and Social Security benefits. Perhaps more importantly, he added, he’s also “learning about human nature, poverty and public policy, and where policy falls short.”

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