Adrian Kulesza

This fall, law students with backgrounds in national service came together to form the Yale Law Student National Service Forum — a new student group at the Law School which hosted its first event with Service Year Alliance CEO Shirley Sagawa last Thursday.

The new group — which includes former members of AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, Teach for America, the uniformed military, religious service groups and other national service groups — seeks to stimulate inclusive conversations surrounding the role of national service in America’s future. In addition to hosting speaker events throughout the year, the group hopes to foster dialogue about its members’ wide range of service experiences.

Thursday’s event with Sagawa, titled “National Service: Can it Heal America?” was co-sponsored by Yale Law Women and the Asian Pacific American Law Student Association. At the talk, Sagawa discussed the current conversation surrounding national service as well as future initiatives to encourage young people to complete service years.

“This is a way to create opportunity, and not just giving somebody a job or money to live on,” Sagwara said. “It’s giving people the kind of self-worth, dignity and sense of personal advocacy that we really want people to have no matter where they come from.”

According to James Campbell ’13 LAW ’20, one of the group’s founders, the seeds of the Yale Law Student National Service Forum were first planted last spring during informal conversations among veterans at the Law School as well as those who had participated in service programs such as AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps. After receiving a “very positive response” to schoolwide emails intended to gauge interest last semester, the group became an official student group at the Law School this fall.

Campbell said the group’s email list currently consists of about 30 students, most of whom are second- and third-year law students. The group is still in the process of seeking out first-year law students with service backgrounds who might be interested in the forum, he said.

In an interview with the News, Sagawa called the new group “groundbreaking,” as she had never heard of a similar student organization. She added that she hopes Yale Law’s position as one of the top law schools in the country will shed a spotlight on national service.

Abigail Pershing LAW ’20, who served in the Peace Corps in West Africa and Senegal, said her perspective toward her studies and her academic trajectory are in part shaped by what she experienced and observed during her two-year service period. She emphasized that service “color[s] the way people use their time” at the Law School, adding that she looks forward to the “more personal conversations” about others’ experiences that will come out of being in the new group.

Matthew Linsley LAW ’21, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, said he likes that the organization ties together military service with other types of service organizations, such as Teach for America or the Peace Corps, noting that the group has the potential to highlight their commonalities.

“There’s a lot of value in bringing those things up on the same plane,” Linsley said, adding that many Americans seem to only recognize military service while neglecting other forms.

Elias Mastakouris ’20, an undergraduate who attended Thursday’s speaker event, said that he is hopeful the conversation surrounding national service will expand beyond just the Law School.

“The smaller groups and smaller conversations can kind of have an avalanche effect,” Mastakouris said. “Starting the conversation there could be a great jumping point at the university level, then the county level, then the state level, until we as country come together to redefine the way that we define service.”

Mastakouris added that he believes “undergrads should be thinking a lot more deeply” about the issue of national service, especially considering the overwhelming consensus that the country is facing polarization. He said he thinks national service is an “actionable solution” that can address many of the problems the nation is divided on, and he would like to see students promote service as a way to overcome increasing political polarization.

Carl Jiang LAW ’20 said he believes the forum is a good platform to “reconsider how we may define community” in a time of polarization, as service can provide a means for those to contribute to their communities.

“In thinking about my reasons for joining Teach for America, I think the concept of citizenship, or lack thereof, contributed to my decision,” Jiang said. “Joining national service programs are an incredible way for those who have uncertain citizenship status, are undocumented, or who are permanent residents to play a role in their community in a formalized fashion.”

Yale Law School has over 55 student organizations.

Asha Prihar | .

Asha Prihar served as managing editor of the News during the 2019-20 academic year. Before that, she covered community service, Yale's professional schools and undergraduate student life as a staff reporter. She is a senior in Silliman College studying political science.