Reprinted with permission of the Connecticut Law Tribune.
Students come to law school with certain assumptions about what a law student should be, says Karen DeMeola.
"They think you have to become this expectation—seemingly conservative, [wearing] a nice presentable suit. You have to look a certain way and act a certain way," said DeMeola, assistant dean of student services at the University of Connecticut School of Law. "I think that the notion of having to become that … is overwhelming for students. Students feel like they have to leave big pieces of themselves behind."
For nearly 15 years at the law school, DeMeola has been challenging these preconceived notions. This year, the Lawyers Collaborative for Diversity, an organization that promotes diversity in Connecticut's legal profession, is honoring DeMeola for her efforts with its prestigious Edwin Archer Randolph Diversity Award.
The annual award recognizes individuals who have succeeded in aiding the advancement and inclusion of lawyers of color and women lawyers in Connecticut's legal profession. The collaborative will present DeMeola with the award at a ceremony on May 14 at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford.
"Karen has a personal openness and sensitivity that makes everybody comfortable in talking to her," said Timothy Fisher, dean of UConn Law. "And she has insight in how people relate to each other, especially people who are different from each other, that allows people to bridge these differences."
DeMeola's duties at the law school include guiding student organizations and programming. In this role, she has helped law students develop myriad diversity events, including the law school's annual Diversity Week.
Last month, UConn Law's 2014 Diversity Week included a personal narratives program in which law students shared stories from their own lives. Students discussed growing up in extreme poverty, adjusting as a transnational adoptee, and facing challenges with mental health. DeMeola said the program encouraged law students to look at and think about one another in a different light.
"Law school tends to be that place where people become closeted and don't share the hard pieces of their lives," she explained. "We all have a backstory and we all can share that perspective. I think that it reminds us that no matter who's putting that suit on, everyone is coming to this from his or her own perspective."
Fisher said that the program helps prepare UConn Law's students to act as lawyers in the real world in which they will interact with "clients and judges and juries" that may be made up of people who are much different than "their friends and family growing up."
The narratives "revealed not only a great deal of vulnerability but also the ability to overcome incredible odds or trauma or challenges," Fisher said. "It enabled those of us present to understand: I see a law student, but I didn't realize what an incredibly rich human being was behind that superficial [identity]."
The Lawyers Collaborative for Diversity recognized DeMeola for "her personal engagement to the idea of diversity and inclusion," said Carolyn Golden Hebsgaard, executive director of the organization, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary.
The group takes a multifaceted approach. It works with hiring partners at law firms and legal recruiters to build strategies for attracting and retaining minority talent. It sponsors programs to develop skills in minority law students: resume reviews, networking events and even wine tasting.
Hebsgaard said the wine-tasting event is part of the collaborative's effort to acclimate law students of diverse backgrounds with the types of social events that are customary in the legal community, "so when they're out entertaining clients they have some of the skills associated with that as well."
A 1996 graduate of UConn Law, DeMeola was previously the law school's assistant dean for admissions, during which time she also taught a course in critical identity theory. The class concerns the "interplay between law and various axes of identity, including gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, and disability status."
"All of my identifies have shaped who I am: An adoptee, someone who's a lesbian or someone who identifies along racial lines," DeMeola said. "It's always been important to me to make sure that people who [might be] marginalized have equal opportunity or access. I don't think anybody in my life would be surprised that diversity is something that I care very much about." •