Schmid Fellowship Program expands to provide summer experiences amidst COVID-19 pandemic

Woman smiling in front of bookcase

It will come as no surprise that COVID-19 disrupted life for our students in a variety of ways this year. Recognizing in early April that there would be job plans and job search efforts negatively impacted, Dean Richard Moberly asked members of the faculty and administration to “think as broadly as possible about potential opportunities for our students” to ensure they would have the ability to gain practical experience during the summer. 

What emerged was a temporary but significant expansion of the Schmid Research Fellowship Program overseen by Professor of Law Library Stefanie Pearlman. Each year, thanks in part to the generosity of the Marvin & Virginia Schmid Foundation, a group of Schmid Research Fellows is hired and supervised by Pearlman to provide research assistance to faculty members. She recognized that program expansion could “do a lot of good for students and faculty.” This year, with the assistance of funding available through the CARES Act, Pearlman added 12 additional research fellows to what was originally a pool of 11, employing a total of 23 rising 2Ls and 3Ls over the summer.

To generate the additional work needed to support an increased number of fellows, Pearlman solicited additional projects from faculty members, while I asked for research-based projects from a number of local nonprofits. Our hope was to provide a meaningful summer experience for a significant number of students and support the important work these organizations and our faculty are doing. In total, 21 different faculty members utilized the research fellows this summer, and five nonprofit organizations – Center for Legal Immigration Assistance, ACLU of Nebraska, Immigrant Legal Center, the NSBA’s Volunteer Lawyers Project and the Midwest Innocence Project – received assistance. 

For some students, the opportunity came at a crucial time. Hunter Shen, ’22, who came to the United States from China, said he “struggled a lot” this spring amidst the pandemic, concern for his family in China and a dramatic increase in racism and xenophobia toward Chinese people in the U.S. When a legal opportunity in New York fell through, he was grateful to be given the chance to work as a research fellow. Noting that English is his second language, Shen doubted his ability to be successful in the beginning. However, as he worked through projects with the library faculty and the Center for Legal Immigration Assistance, he learned a lot and gained confidence. 

The Schmid Research Fellows are a valuable resource for the faculty. Professor Jessica Shoemaker – a self-described “big fan” of the program – frequently uses them to amplify her research agenda and scholarly work, which she hopes in turn will provide the fellows with valuable training and exposures. This summer, students helped her with research on topics including rural housing policy and trends in farmland ownership and investment over time. She also had a fellow assist with a state-specific survey of lower-court decisions related to co-ownership rights and responsibilities in American property law. This was part of a larger look at how co-owners cooperate (or don’t) and how the law does (or doesn’t) facilitate dispute resolution and to what ends. Shoemaker noted, “It’s great to have smart, able and eager research assistants at the ready, especially when they also get support and training from Professor Pearlman.”

In assigning projects to the fellows, Pearlman tries to align them with the fellows’ areas of interest. 

“Students have a richer experience when they work in their areas of interest. It allows students to delve deeper into legal issues they are passionate about and to connect with faculty who have the same interests.”

Sarah Lauce, ’21, who came to law school with an interest in space law and will graduate with a concentration in High Technology and International Law & Business, worked exclusively with Professor Jack Beard, co-director of the Space, Cyber, and Telecommunications Law Program. 

Beard said Lauce played an important part in researching the practice of states supporting rules in a major project sponsored by the College of Law and its British and Australian university partners, the Woomera Manual on the International Law of Military Space Operations. The manual is forthcoming in 2021 (Oxford University Publishing). For Lauce, the experience has unearthed an interest in a more research-focused career, perhaps in policy. 

In some cases, the program yielded opportunities and work product that no one involved anticipated. Kristina Oleta Rachowicz, ’22, is particularly interested in immigration and employment law. She dreams of one day “work[ing] for a nonprofit policy organization specializing in bolstering support for our non-citizen neighbors and/or helping the working class.” As a research fellow, she updated chapters of Professor Richard Leiter’s National Survey of State Laws on Right to Work and Civil Rights, and worked extensively with the Immigrant Legal Center (ILC) in Omaha. Rachowicz said, “What should have been a two-week engagement turned into a quasi-internship with ILC.”

"This program encapsulated several areas of the College of Law's strategic plan. It helped our students engage in community service, provided them with both experiential and academic learning opportunities and created interaction between students and faculty. It also provided research support for our faculty to help them continue their existing projects and to investigate new areas of scholarly interest.

Professor Stefanie Pearlman

Her initial project with ILC conducting a 50-state survey of immigrant eligibility for unemployment benefits morphed into a multifaceted assignment including analysis of Nebraska’s unemployment legislation, research that will aid in the creation of policy brochures for the state legislature and a presentation for attorneys at ILC to better understand unemployment funding and administration. 

She also participated in meetings with field experts, such as those at the National Employment Law Project, with whom she shared her insight on present and potential future Nebraskan governance of employment matters. Impressed with the thoroughness and passion she brought to the project, ILC has invited Rachowicz to testify before the Unicameral to close the existing gap in worker protections that her research addressed.

In the end, the expansion was a win-win. According to Pearlman, “This program encapsulated several areas of the College of Law’s strategic plan. It helped our students engage in community service, provided them with both experiential and academic learning opportunities and created interaction between students and faculty. It also provided research support for our faculty to help them continue their existing projects and to investigate new areas of scholarly interest.”

Anna Deal, director of legal strategy for ILC, said they “absolutely” would participate if the program was offered again, noting that the research fellows both increased ILC’s capacity and helped manage existing workload: 

“We came away with […] [a] 50-state survey of precedent decisions on Special Immigrant Juvenile Status predicate orders, which will inform our litigation strategy in seeking to advance Nebraska law; a template brief and chart of positive and negative authority on gender-based asylum claims, which our attorneys will utilize in briefing these cases;  and a memo and PowerPoint presentation summarizing extensive research on states’ unemployment insurance schemes, which will serve as our foundation in developing potential Nebraska legislation to expand access to unemployment insurance to all work-authorized immigrants.

Students were able to support important work happening in the Law College and legal community and gained experience they might not have gotten otherwise. Max Tierney, ’22, who worked with three professors and also had a project with the ACLU researching the increase in sealed court filings, is thankful he had the opportunity to do the fellowship: “I had practically resigned myself to the fact that I just wouldn’t be able to have a real legal experience during my 1L summer, but the fellowship gave me experience doing surveys, writing memos and hopefully helping people make the world a bit better.” 

Also in this issue:

  • Honoring the life and career of Professor Martin Gardner
  • Marshfield joins law faculty
  • Mulugheta, ’10, builds career representing athletes by building trust
  • Plus, a message from Dean Moberly, Faculty Updates, Around the College, Alumni Stories

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