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Pathways to the Profession: Som-Mai Nguyen L’22

July 07, 2020

Editor’s Note: Each summer University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School students hone their skills through a wide array of private and public sector internships across the country and around the world. Generous financial support and fellowships for international and public interest work enable students to pursue diverse assignments in the United States and abroad. This post is one in a series of firsthand accounts detailing how students’ summer employment opportunities are preparing them for their legal careers.

A rising 2L from Houston, Texas, Som-Mai Nguyen is interested in the legal dimensions of health’s social determinants, especially in relation to educational equity, language access, citizenship status, and transportation justice.

This summer, I’m interning with Advocates for Children of New York, which works to protect children’s educational rights — focusing on youth who are most likely to experience failure or discrimination in school due to poverty, disability, race, language inaccessibility, citizenship status, housing insecurity, sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or involvement in the child welfare/juvenile justice systems. In addition to providing legal aid to the families of students, AFC also engages in impact litigation, policy advocacy, and community trainings.

My main tasks involve assisting staff attorneys on direct service cases (for instance, by drafting 10-day notices and due process complaints and preparing witness questions) and preparing a research memo concerning Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. I’ll also be responding to helpline calls, attending parent-school IEP meetings, and observing impartial hearings. I was very nervous about interning remotely, but my supervising attorneys, all incredibly capable advocates, have been nothing but gracious and generous in showing me how to build upon the basic concepts to which we were introduced in LPS.

Seeing the limited scope of remedies available to individuals when the NYC DOE fails its students (as well as the range of obstacles a family might face in seeking a fair and appropriate public education for their child) has been dismaying and fascinating. Alongside the reasons I oppose, at a structural level, legitimizing or diverting public resources to exclusionary private/charter alternatives, especially as a product of Title I public schools myself, this internship experience has been tremendously helpful in refining how I’d like to interact with education policy and movement lawyering going forward.

In addition, I’m working as a research assistant for Professor Sally Gordon on an NEH-supported project she’s co-directing about Biddy Mason, the development of Black Los Angeles, and the legal history of enslavement in so-called “free” states. I’m extremely excited to continue learning — about how to conduct legal history research, about Mason’s remarkable life, and about how enslaved people in the U.S. West fought for, achieved, and experienced emancipation.

My internship is funded through a Morgan Lewis Public Interest Summer Fellowship and an EJF Summer Grant, and I am especially thankful for the guidance of CP&P’s Jamie Reisman in finding summer opportunities. Every time I hauled my inchoate questions and all-purpose angst into her office and inbox, she responded with thoughtful, actionable encouragement, as have Professor Allison Hoffman and Dean Arlene Finkelstein when I’ve asked for advice. (Professor Hoffman, with whom I had torts, is who helped me see that one unifying theme underlying many of my interests was the social determinants of health! I’m also taking a wonderful, grimly illuminating summer term course she’s co-teaching with Professor Karen Tani and Dean Ted Ruger on constitutional, health, and social welfare law as they relate to COVID-19.)

It’s a strange summer of a strange year. I look forward to my remaining time at Penn, which I hope to fill with research and writing.