Bumper Crop

Welcome to a Community Where Students Feel Like Extended Family
By Larry Teitelbaum

Summer Jackson-Healy was a ballerina, suffused with grace and agility, disciplined and self-possessed. Engaged on many fronts, Summer served as a Big Sister, offered financial advice to disadvantaged businesses and volunteered for an Austin group working to abolish the death penalty in Texas.

She was a dynamo.

With characteristic enthusiasm, Summer threw herself into the life of the Law School when she came up north to attend in 2005. She enjoyed studying the theory of law and its practical application. Legal writing excited her. Every week she visited the admissions office to lead tours for prospective students; she plunged into advocacy and interned for the Prisoner's Legal Assistance Project; she got involved in the Equal Justice Foundation and worked hard to help organize the annual auction. And made a lot of friends.

In only four months, she had fallen in love with the Law School. And then, like a flash, she was gone. In mid-December of her first year, while preparing for exams, Summer suffered a stroke. The 26-year-old succumbed a few days later.

Her death unleashed a flood of grief, increasing anxiety levels at a time when students were already overwrought due to finals.

Recognizing their fragile state, Dean of Students Gary Clinton spoke to Summer's section and led a moment of silence right before exams. Then the school organized a memorial service in late January that was attended by virtually her entire class. The Law School also established a scholarship fund in support of the EJF and placed a plaque in tribute in the Toll Public Interest Center.

The touching response to Summer's passing was indicative.

In ways big and small Penn Law School is, to paraphrase an old Philadelphia tourism slogan, The Law School That Loves You Back. The warm atmosphere encourages maintenance workers to take prospective students on school tours after hours; spurs staff and faculty to raise significant funds in support of security guards when tragedy strikes their families or medical bills overwhelm; inspires faculty to treat students like extended family; and fosters lifelong friendships that often run deeper than the ones struck in college.

"Penn Law School has a distinctive culture," says Dean Michael A. Fitts. "It's a sense of community. It's a sense of the importance of supporting and respecting your fellow classmates.

And you learn a set of skills that will be fundamental in your career and in your life."

As one student put it in the annual issue of the Princeton Review that ranks law schools, "You do not go it alone at Penn Law."

What accounts for this: heredity or environment? Actually, both.

Penn Law School has a tradition of being a close-knit community. It comes from being situated in a small-scale and unpretentious city. The Law School does not rank the class which prevents destructive competition. On-campus job interviews are assigned by lottery rather than grades. Class sizes are kept small. And, most important, the campus is compact and accessible. No one has to walk outside or cross the street to get to Public Service, the Registrar, Student Affairs, the Dean's Office, or Financial Aid. Classrooms, Biddle Law Library, faculty offices all in one place.

"It's one thing to have an historical reputation. It's quite another thing to maintain that reputation," says Renee Post, associate dean for admissions and financial aid.

She continues, "You look at many of our peer schools and they're in multiple buildings. (Some) are in a high-rise where faculty offices are on floors X and Y, classrooms are on Z and students are down in the basement. There's not that crossing of paths."

In a common theme, Clinton recalls a recent visit from an alumna who graduated five years ago. She commented on all the changes but said that the school still felt the same, despite the larger faculty, the richer course offerings and the physical renovations.

The physical plant has expanded over the years and will continue to change with the completion of Golkin Hall in January 2012. But the administration, mindful of tradition and interested in preserving the culture, decided to build up rather than move part of the complex to another location on the Penn campus.

Which is good news for students, faculty, administrators and staff who cross each other's paths in the common spaces of The Goat (now The Haaga Lounge) and The Clock and gather in the courtyard for barbeques and chats. This proximity leads to durable relationships.

"I think I've had lunch with every single professor I've had here," says Christopher Schmitt L'11, president of the Council of Student Representatives. "Professors encourage it, too, which goes a long way."

This past fall, professor Sally Gordon had two students over for Thanksgiving dinner. One celebrated the holiday, the other didn't. Both welcome. And every year she invites students to an end-of-semester feast at her home during which she shares her recipe for sesame noodles.Typical.

Typical too was the response to an undergraduate student who was taking a criminal law course here five years ago. He lost all of his notes, his books and his computer when a fire destroyed his apartment building.

Gary Clinton received a call from the provost's office: Can you get him a set of notes?

He sent an e-mail to students. "Within two hours I had 18 sets of notes and 10 offers to tutor this kid," recalls Clinton.

A couple of years ago a student's laptop computer crashed at the wrong time finals. Word got out. Post, the head of admissions, walked into her office one day and saw an envelope that had been slipped under the door. The enveloped contained an anonymous note from a classmate and something else: five or six crisp twenty dollar bills. Post followed instructions and passed on the money to the student for the purchase of another computer.

Engagement equals community. Respect breeds friendship.

An open environment creates open communication. All of which leads to the loving reaction that greeted news of Summer Jackson-Healy's sudden illness and subsequent passing.

In the hours after Summer's stroke, Amy Wax, one of her favorite professors, acted as a mother would. Wax admired Summer's spunk and intellect. She relied on her for answers when the class was stumped. A trained neurologist, Wax went to the hospital and counseled the family on end of life decisions, offering comfort and knowledge.

And when Summer passed, the Law School thought long and hard about the appropriate way to honor Summer's memory, settling on a scholarship fund and a plaque in the Public Service center. The plaque reads, "She loved life. She loved the law. She believed that justice is possible."

Those words - and the Penn shield - are carved on her gravestone.