Danielle Hall & Gideon Levy, UPLIFT Community Leaders
Amidst the pandemic and the shift from traditional, on-campus instruction to remote, online classes, Miami Law's award-winning Student Services Team launched a new program that began this fall semester to help the 1L class engage with other students, as well as to help upper-level students develop leadership skills. UPLIFT, which stands for Uplifting Professionalism, Leadership, and Inclusion among Future lawyers through Teamwork, provides 1Ls with a small-group environment conducive to meaningful interaction and community building that is especially important in this uncertain time.
Beginning at Orientation this semester with a “Community Building and Successful Online Teaming” session led by Professor Michele DeStefano, the 1L class was divided into small “Communities” of 20-24 students, which are led by upper-level students called “Community Leaders.” The student leaders are responsible for fostering community-building and generating a supportive team dynamic. Community leaders also play an essential role in communicating student feedback, promoting well-being, and supporting peers throughout the law school experience which is uniquely challenging during this year of social distancing.
UPLIFT is also an experiential leadership development program. Vanessa Kuljis, director of professional development and leadership initiatives, spearheaded the creation of UPLIFT and is currently managing all 17 community leaders.
“The UPLIFT program is designed to be as much about community building as it is about leadership development,” said Kuljis. “Our community leaders are learning about adaptability, innovation, and leading during times of uncertainty. They are developing skills like team leadership and effective communication in a fully virtual setting. UPLIFT presents a win-win value proposition in that it accomplishes the dual goals of equipping future lawyers with critical skills for law practice in the 21st century while also providing 1L students with mentorship and a supportive community environment. Together we are creating new opportunities in an otherwise challenging time. I am proud of our students’ eagerness to lead and support one another.”
UPLIFT community leaders receive preparatory training and guidance throughout the program. This semester, this included a session on the CliftonStrengths assessment, an experiential learning session about mindfulness with Professor Scott Rogers, director of the Mindfulness in Law Program, and a discussion on social and professional identity with Professor Osamudia James, associate dean for diversity, equity, and community.
1Ls are also invited to participate in UPLIFT programming focused on professional development topics including a Social and Professional Identity Workshop led by James, and a panel conversation with 1L professors, “No Stress Tools for Success in the Virtual Classroom.”
The community leaders are tasked with making sure all students feel welcomed and included; creating connections through fun, interactive activities; developing practices to support physical, mental and emotional health; and being committed to growing through each learning experience. This fall, the community leaders collectively designed and led a series of activities which were funded by the Student Bar Association and included trivia and game nights with prizes, a guided chocolate tasting, and a guided painting session – all done virtually.
Not only do UPLIFT community leaders conduct virtual community-building activities, they also share Miami Law resources, answer common 1L questions, and facilitate connections between Miami Law students. 3L student Gideon Levy is a community leader who moderated a Summer Internship Panel during one of his UPLIFT community meetings featuring a group of 3Ls with diverse internship experiences from public interest organizations to a large law firm.
“This pandemic has all but shut down The Bricks,” said Levy, who in addition to a full course load is also a member of the Charles C. Papy, Jr. Moot Court Board, the Alliance Against Human Trafficking, the Cardozo Jewish Legal Society, the Miami Law Mock Trial Team and the University of Miami Law Review. “That's costing our 1Ls a lot of opportunities, like the social release of debriefing about class, the informal networking with peers and professors, and class-specific insights from upper-level students. To me, the UPLIFT program is the closest we can get to providing, virtually, most of the magic of The Bricks. I hope that when these 1Ls graduate, they do so with essentially the same quantity and quality of connections that prior classes have had.”
Second-year Danielle Hall is also an UPLIFT Community Leader. She serves as treasurer and professional development chair for the Black Law Students Association and the law student liaison for the Florida Bar Young Lawyers Division.
“It has been a pleasure discussing academic and career-related topics with my community in our biweekly meetings, but my favorite experience so far would have to be our Family Feud Game Night,” said Hall. “Throughout our game night, we were able to highlight UPLIFT community values and core competencies. The students engaged in teamwork as they quickly decided the top choices for their final answer before the timer buzzed. The students’ overall well-being was a priority as they took time from their hectic schedule to stop, laugh, and enjoy a night of fun. Students were able to strengthen their bond with random stories throughout the evening about their personal life, including celebrity meetings and hobbies.”
First-year students can count on their UPLIFT community leader to be their guide to the Miami Law student experience.
“The UPLIFT program comes at an essential time where online classes create a barrier with community building,” said Hall. “Through UPLIFT, I hope to foster a sense of belonging and inclusion through discussions and mentorship. Hopefully, I can provide support and insight on navigating law school.”