New program for first-year law students centers the experiences of students of color

The RISE program, led by third-year law student Shantal Pai, launched last week in an effort to create a safe space for students of color to discuss their experiences pursuing law.

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Parker Johnson

Shantal Pai poses for portraits outside Mondale Hall on January 20th. “Hopefully we can get more diversity within the law system, more representation, as most of the students signed up are minority representing” Pai discusses her new law program to help first year students in the law school, a program to help POC in the University. ( Parker Johnson / Staff Photographer )

Katelyn Vue

A new student-led program will provide a space for first-year University of Minnesota law students to study through a lens that centers the experiences of students of color.

The Race-Informed Study Experience program, or RISE, was founded by third-year law student Shantal Pai. The RISE program officially started last week with two online introductory sessions. Every month, Pai will lead the virtual sessions, which will cover topics like code-switching, navigating a predominantly white institution and starting conversations to reevaluate racist legal arguments.

Sessions are centered around the classes that first-year law students are required to take during their second semester: property and criminal law. Currently, there are 19 students participating.

“There’s no right or wrong answer. It’s just a chance for them to engage with the material, learn from each other and honestly practice talking about law in a slightly different way than we do in class,” Pai said.

The RISE program is supported by the Structured Study Group Program (SSG), the University’s Law School academic support program for first-year students. The SSG program allows first-year students to gain mentorship and academic support from second- and third-year law students.

Morgan Alexander, a third-year law student, joined SSG as a student in the program before becoming an SSG instructor alongside Pai. Alexander has been an SSG instructor for the past two years.

“I’m so glad the [RISE] program exists, and I’m so glad that someone like Shantal is spearheading it because of her passion for this. I find it embarrassing that it has not already existed. The Law School, the legal profession, is always behind, and this is no different,” Alexander said.

In Pai’s property law class, she remembered her professor explaining a case that sparked her frustration and motivated her to create the RISE program. In an 1823 court case called Johnson v. M’Intosh, the court gave the federal government control over the Indigenous lands of the Piankeshaw tribe.

This decision was based on the idea that the Piankeshaw tribe was not able to maintain possession of the land because it “never ‘owned’ it in the traditional sense of the word,” according to a LexisNexis case brief.

Pai said she wanted to discuss the consequences of the case and its relation to the continued expropriation of Indigenous lands. However, she added that the professor and materials in class did not provide an opportunity for deeper discussions.

Brandie Burris, a second-year law student, said she attended the first introductory session to connect to peers and explore law in a way that is not often recognized in her classes.

She added that creating an affirming academic community for students to discuss legal topics taught in classes while wrestling with how race, racism and bias play out in American law is important.

Pai will be graduating in May, and she said she hopes a student in the RISE program and a second-year law student will help carry on the program into the future.

“I’m just really hoping that the students can have that opportunity to feel connected to each other and to know that there’s other people on their team. And they’re not solely responsible for the future of a good legal system, but we’re creating this together,” Pai said.