"We work with students from the moment they are accepted through graduation and, occasionally, beyond," says DeVigne, "Our job is to remove obstacles that students face, and, when appropriate, make fair exceptions to rules to help ensure the success of our students."
The Human Connection
Law school, with all its trials and tribulations, is tough at the best of times, but where can students turn when the normal stresses of academic life are compounded by extraordinary real-world challenges? At GW Law, the Student Affairs Office is an oasis of support, counseling aspiring attorneys on everything from course selection to staying afloat academically in times of personal crisis.
From the moment they set foot in the beautifully appointed office on 20th and H Streets, students are surrounded by a caring team of professionals dedicated to making their journey through law school easier. A full-time staff of four, plus two part-time staff members, led by Renee Y. DeVigne, associate dean for student affairs, and David M. Johnson, assistant dean for student affairs, work passionately to serve students. "We work with students from the moment they are accepted through graduation and, occasionally, beyond," says DeVigne, who has overseen GW Law's Office of Student Affairs since February 1999. "Our job is to remove obstacles that students face, and, when appropriate, make fair exceptions to rules to help ensure the success of our students."
A visit to Student Affairs is a welcoming experience, from the handsome, spacious quarters in newly refurbished 700 20th Street building right down to the enticing dish of Hershey's miniatures on the dean's desk the day of our interview. An impressive array of programs and services fall under the broad umbrella of Student Affairs. One of the office's foremost missions is providing academic support and advising to law students. DeVigne and her staff work closely with GW's 1,700 law students to plan their programs from among the large variety of courses offered. "We are so fortunate here to have an extremely broad and deep curriculum and outstanding faculty who collectively take a very keen interest in the welfare of their students," says DeVigne.
Meeting with students is part of the daily schedule for Associate Dean for Student Affairs Renee DeVigne.
Two popular Student Affairs offerings cast a particularly wide net—a comprehensive academic advising fair each spring and one-on-one, walk-up "alcove advising" four times a year in the alcove outside the Burns Library. "Alcove advising gives us the chance to reach hundreds of law students in a short period of time, answer questions, sign forms, and make sure that students are on track for graduation," says DeVigne. "GW has one of the largest law school enrollments nationwide, so it's a great way for us to make ourselves available and connect with students on a regular basis."
The office also provides a tutoring program for struggling law students, launched in 2001. "It's an extremely successful program, which helped 60 students at its high point last semester," says Johnson. The program matches up tutors—who are generally outstanding second- and third-year law students—with students who are having a tough time with a particular course or two. "I only wish that a program like this had been available when I was in law school, because antitrust was just a nightmare for me," Johnson says. "Law students are often people who have never struggled with anything in their lives, so it's important for them to have a crutch like this to lean on."
A second major area that the office oversees is co-curricular support—encompassing the many activities students participate in outside the classroom to augment their studies, such as student organizations, law journals, and skills boards.
"Co-curricular activities make the Law School come alive outside of the classroom, and we're pleased to support student groups in their programming, in their leadership, and in promoting their activities," says DeVigne. "The law school owes a significant amount of its vibrancy to its rich co-curricular life."
Student leader Tiffany Hamilton credits the Student Affairs Office with easing her way as moot court president this year. "It makes such a difference to know that we have faculty support," says Hamilton. "Dean Johnson, our moot court adviser, has been extraordinarily helpful. We've had weekly meetings throughout the year to keep him abreast of moot court activities. He's helped us to organize the various competitions, and has provided the support needed to tie everything together and run each competition successfully."
Outgoing Student Bar Association President Olamide Famuyiwa also enjoyed the support of the Student Affairs Office. "I met regularly with Dean DeVigne throughout the year for direction on various issues concerning Law School students," says Famuyiwa, whose SBA administration oversaw 35 student groups at the Law School this past year. "Dean DeVigne and her staff were instrumental in helping us in every regard—from securing venues for events to helping us out with commencement and orientation activities and the mentor program," he says. "The office definitely made my life a lot easier and was instrumental in whatever successes my SBA administration enjoyed this year. I'll be forever grateful."
An all-encompassing third mission of Student Affairs is ensuring success for all students. "Ensuring success is such a broad umbrella, covering almost everything you can imagine that would be an issue in the life of a law student," says DeVigne, whose staff regularly consults privately with students to provide assistance with emergencies. Issues that arise are as unpredictable as life itself. "We've had students suffer catastrophic illnesses, debilitating car accidents, and other tragedies while at GW," says DeVigne. "We've had students remain enrolled while undergoing chemotherapy, while in treatment for severe depression, or while battling other issues impeding their ability to devote their full attention to their studies. We've also seen students who have been victims of crime and domestic violence."
"It's often when students least expect that their journey can be made easier that we're able to step in and help them down the road. It's a real privilege to play a role in such a meaningful enterprise."
Personal emergencies sometimes require a leave of absence, a temporary transfer to another location, or a change to part-time status—all of which Student Affairs staffers help facilitate. "We provide a safe and confidential venue for discussion of very private matters and try to create an oasis of support and encouragement for our students," DeVigne says. "Students know that they can come into the office, shut the door, and if they need to, they can let the tears flow. Our goal is to provide the support they need to eventually walk across the stage at graduation, joyous in their victory and in their accomplishments."
Other Student Affairs services aimed at ensuring success run the gamut from four orientation programs annually to support for special needs and disabled students. "We make sure that students with mobility challenges or hearing or sight impairment can maneuver around the Law School and have their special needs met, and that students with learning disabilities are accommodated in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act," says DeVigne.
The Student Affairs Office also hosts annual student awards ceremonies honoring GW student leaders. "The award ceremonies are such a joyful experience," says DeVigne. "At the commencement awards ceremony, we distribute awards for academic excellence, and in the spring, we host with Dean Young a student recognition ceremony honoring heads of student organizations and recognizing the extraordinary commitment of time that they devote beyond their studies to build the Law School community. It's extremely gratifying to see the fruits of their labor and to be able to honor them for their outstanding achievements."
Another rewarding part of the job for DeVigne is working with students who become new parents while in law school. "GW has tremendous flexibility to accommodate expectant moms and dads," she notes. "We work with them to re-schedule exams, reduce course loads, tape classes, switch to part-time status, or arrange a leave of absence, if necessary. Life goes on, despite law school, with all of its joys and challenges."
A case in point is Ashli Richens, who gave birth to her first child, Henry, in December 2001, midway through law school. After master planning in tandem with the Law School's Student Affairs Office, along with impressive juggling, Richens is set to graduate on schedule with her class in May with an A-minus grade point average. "I couldn't have done it without Dean DeVigne," says Richens. "She was just a tremendous help and took a great weight off of my shoulders."
Richens first approached DeVigne at the end of year one, when she and husband Stuart found out that they were expecting a baby. "She was invaluable in arranging my transfer to the evening program for a semester once the baby was born, as well as in scheduling my exams, since I was due right in the middle of finals," says Richens. "My last exam was Dec. 6 and Henry was born Dec. 9, so everything worked out beautifully! I even had one day to relax and one day to do Christmas shopping and decorate the tree!"
DeVigne and Johnson are supported by a dedicated team in the office's new quarters, one floor away from the dean's suite in the renovated 700 20th Street building.
Richens maintained full-time status at GW Law while attending the evening program, earning 12 credit hours for her coursework, plus one additional credit for serving on the law review. "Dean DeVigne was instrumental in helping me to work out my schedule, as well as in generally providing support," says Richens, who has since returned to the full-time day program. "She checked in on me and even offered to put me in touch with other women who've had babies in law school."
The future looks bright for Richens, who will begin a clerkship at the Court of Federal Claims in August and already has offers from two Washington law firms for 2004. "Dean DeVigne was actually one of my references for the clerkship," she says. "We really have a wonderful relationship. She's been a mentor to me professionally and has helped me and many others balance unusual personal responsibilities with the demands of law school. I am extremely grateful."
Two GW Law students also currently benefiting from the services of the Student Affairs Office are Amy and Joseph Swanson. The couple, who were married in September 2000, had just started their second semester of law school this January when Joseph, a captain in the Marine Corps, received orders to ship out in 48 hours for military service.
"Dean Johnson was really a dream come true," says Amy Swanson. "He walked us around campus to every office we needed to go to fill out forms and have paperwork processed, and assured Joe that he would be able to re-enroll when he returns. He really put our minds at ease and bent over backwards for us, even ensuring that all of Joe's tuition money was refunded for the semester."
The Student Affairs Office arranged to tape Amy's classes for a couple of days while the couple scrambled around making last-minute arrangements for Joseph's departure. "We were shocked at how much help and support Dean Johnson gave us," she says. "He even went as far as offering us the services of a secretary on campus to notarize our documents so that we didn't have to run around town to get it done. We were both surprised at how wonderful the Student Affairs Office was to us. It gave us the help and confidence we needed at a time when we really needed it."
Military orders also arrived in late January for second-year law student Eli Hoory, a reservist in the Coast Guard. Hoory, who is carrying 15 credit hours at GW Law this semester, reported for duty three days later at the Coast Guard Atlantic Area Command Center in Portsmouth, Va., 200 miles from Foggy Bottom. With the help of the Student Affairs Office, he is successfully juggling school and his Coast Guard responsibilities as a command duty officer overseeing three 12-hour watches per week, including some all-night shifts.
"The biggest thing is just letting me remain at law school and being flexible, offering to tape my courses if needed and to arrange alternate exam dates," he says. "We've pre-arranged that I just need to call in if I need to have a course taped, and Student Affairs takes care of the rest," he says. "Dean DeVigne and I have also discussed options for a reduced course load in the fall, if necessary. The most important thing is that I don't have to worry about school—it's one area of my life where I know I have some flexibility. It's one less thing to worry about, which is very important because otherwise I would have lost the semester. It just takes a load off my mind knowing that the Student Affairs Office has been so flexible and accommodating. It takes a weight off."
It helps that DeVigne and Johnson can relate personally to exactly what law students are going through, as they, too, are attorneys. Both DeVigne and Johnson earned their undergraduate and law degrees from Georgetown University, and they bring a wealth of experience to the job. DeVigne joined GW Law in 1999, after serving for five years as associate counsel to the inspector general of the Department of State and counsel to the inspector general of the U.S. Information Agency.
She began her career as attorney/adviser at the Federal Reserve Board, and that background of federal service serves as the foundation for her teaching law on an adjunct basis on issues related to the practice of law in the federal government. In her capacity as dean of students, DeVigne draws upon more than 12 years of experience in student affairs issues, including serving as associate dean, interim dean of students, and special counsel to Georgetown University.
Johnson joined the Law School in 2001, after serving as director of special events and continuing legal education at the Washington College of Law at American University. Previously, he was director of career services at the David A. Clarke School of Law at the University of the District of Columbia. Prior to entering academia, he was a commercial litigator with a Columbus, Ohio, law firm. Throughout his career, he has taught law on an adjunct basis and continues to teach in the first-year legal research and writing program at GW.
Rounding out the team are Executive Aide Brian Doherty and Program Assistants Darius Bickham, Meredith Jones, and Kue Lattimore. "Without their support, we couldn't provide the level of service that we do to our students," says DeVigne. "They manage student intake, plan and implement numerous events, coordinate class taping requests and the tutoring program, manage student evaluations of faculty members, and support student organizations. They are the front line of our operation—the unsung heroes—and they do an excellent job."
The entire team is united by a genuine love for making a difference in students' lives. "This job is one of the most exciting jobs you can possibly have working in a law school," says Johnson. "I enjoy students and academia, and like the fact that eight out of ten of the issues we deal with here are solvable. The vast majority of the time, we can come up with a positive solution that students are happy with. Whatever the concern- whether personal problems or worries about a particular course, and however small or large—we genuinely care and do our best to help. The pool of students here is just extraordinary, and if we can help them through the tough times, you know they're really going to go places."
DeVigne concurs. "So often the challenges of life can impede academic pursuits," she says. "When students walk in the door, their personal lives tag along with their intellect. We are gratified to learn that the care and concern students may receive from a dean or faculty member has made all the difference in their legal education. It's often when students least expect that their journey can be made easier that we're able to step in and help them down the road. It's a real privilege to play a role in such a meaningful enterprise."
By Jamie L. Freedman
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