News & Events

Public Service Program

Posted April 7, 2011

Program in Law and Public Service Welcomes Second Class

Andrew Block, director of the Child Advocacy Clinic and a seminar instructor in the Program in Law and Public Service, discusses the program.

E-mail E-mail
print Print
E-mail news E-mail Newsletter

Mary Wood

The Program in Law and Public Service this semester welcomed its second class of students. Launched last year, the program offers participants a public service curriculum that includes access to faculty mentors, guaranteed funding for summer public service jobs and access to seminars relating to public service law.

This year’s class includes 20 first-year law students who have already shown a commitment to a range of public service endeavors, including volunteer work abroad, government service and nonprofit work.

“With the addition of another class, the program has almost doubled in size,” said Professor Jim Ryan, director of the program. “It's exciting to watch it grow, and I continue to be amazed by the diverse and exceptional talents and interests among the program participants. It's a genuine privilege to be a part of this.”

Four of the program participants recently discussed their public service experiences and what drew them to the program.


Ogechi Achuko

B.S., Vanderbilt University
Major: Human and Organizational Development; Minor: Sociology

Achuko’s record of service ranges from working at the D.C. Department of the Environment to the Student’s Health and Welfare Centers Organization in Cape Town, South Africa. Since coming to law school she has been a pro bono legal volunteer with the Legal Aid Justice Center and a teacher in the Street Law program, in which law students explain everyday law topics to high school students.

Why are you interested in pursuing public interest legal work?

Part of my desire to pursue public interest legal work stems from my background growing up as a minority living near a metropolitan city, where many of the indigent in need of social services are also minorities.  Because I have been blessed with opportunities to pursue higher education, I feel inspired to give back to my community in a meaningful way, one being through a public interest career. Also, my educational and professional experiences have reinforced my interest in pursuing public interest work. During my undergraduate experience, I engaged in a variety of meaningful service activities that intertwined my two passions, education and human rights. In college, every year I helped to raise funds for scholarships for children in Africa and in the summer of 2008, I participated in a service-learning trip to South Africa, where I taught educational skills to low-income women and youth. In addition, I had the amazing opportunity to intern at the Nashville Public Defender's office, where I received hands-on experience working with indigent clients and learning about the criminal justice system.  

What kind of career do you want to have, or what field do you want to enter?

I would like to pursue a career in the government or nonprofit sector. I would prefer to have a multidimensional career where I can work on a variety of social policy issues like education, fair housing, indigent services and community economic development. The area that I have the most interest in is education law. A dream job would be advocating for greater access to quality secondary and higher education for low-income and disadvantaged minority students. I firmly believed that education is the key to a successful future. I have witnessed firsthand — both in my community service experiences and my own experience attending public schools — the devastating and cyclical effects that the lack of quality educational opportunities can have on society as a whole, and particularly on disadvantaged communities. While working at the Public Defender’s Office, I saw that many of the indigent clients’ criminal backgrounds were a manifestation of broken education systems. In pursuit of my education interest, I do pro bono work for JustChildren, a Charlottesville organization dedicated to helping indigent clients with their children's educational and disciplinary legal issues.

What do you hope to achieve by participating in the Program in Law and Public Service?

The Program in Law and Public Service has provided me with an invaluable opportunity to cultivate my interest in education law within a structured and supportive program. The program has allowed me the chance to develop meaningful long-term relationships with my peers and other mentors who also share my passion for public interest work. Thus far, the program has provided many outlets to network with legal and social pioneers in a variety of areas in the public interest sector. Also, I am most excited about working with my mentor, Professor Jim Ryan, who is an expert in the field of education law. Under his guidance, I hope to explore the multiple facets of education law with the goal of developing an innovative legal research paper topic. By the end of the program, I wish to have developed the skills, network, and educational foundation necessary for building a successful career in public service. 


Genevieve Aguilar

B.A., Colorado College
Major: International Political Economy; Minors: Spanish, Latin American Studies

Aguilar is co-director of the Migrant Farm Worker Pro Bono Project and an executive board member of the Latin American Law Organization. She also volunteers as a mentor for Action for a Better Living Environment and is a member of the J.B. Moore Society of International Law. She previously served as a victim advocate for the district attorney in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Why are you interested in pursuing public interest legal work?

The child of an immigrant, I never considered myself different than my friends. My life was similar to other middle-class American girls. In high school, however, I was awakened to the injustices many immigrants face. Several of my classmates were undocumented, brought into the country as infants with no recollection of their fatherland. It was something that I never realized until we began driving, getting part-time jobs and applying to colleges. It was excruciatingly difficult for me to reconcile the fact that I, a child of an immigrant, had a very different future in store for me than many of my friends, also children of immigrants. Without papers, they couldn’t drive, obtain financial aid or work, and they lived in constant fear of deportation.

Through volunteering with the immigrant population in educational and legal settings, I came to realize that my efforts were limited by the laws that prevented systemic change to combat the injustices that this community faced.

What kind of career do you want to have, or what field do you want to enter? 

I want to advocate for the immigrant community and ease their transition into the country. Working for the federal government would provide me with invaluable insight into the policies that shape immigration law.

What do you hope to achieve by participating in the Program in Law and Public Service?

The program is so new that we get to play an integral role in molding what it ultimately becomes. I’m excited to contribute to a great legacy of public service at UVA Law. I was particularly attracted to the Program in Law and Public Service because I wanted to meet other “true believers.” Both the students and professors are extraordinary people who are passionate about public service. It’s been a privilege to have a supportive environment in which to hear about others’ experiences and learn about crucial skills in public interest lawyering. Professor Anne Coughlin’s Law and Public Service class has helped me to refine the type of work I want to pursue and how I can best serve the immigrant community. Through the program and Professor Coughlin’s class, I have had the opportunity to meet with public interest lawyers and hear about their career paths and passion for public service. It has given me valuable insight into the world of public service from a variety of perspectives and challenged me to reflect upon my own goals.


Daniel Guarnera

B.A., American University
Majors: Political Science, French/European Studies; Minor: Justice

Guarnera served as director of government relations for the National Association of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselors prior to law school. His efforts included lobbying Congress and agencies on addiction-related legislation, including health care reform, insurance parity for addiction services, veterans’ health care and other matters. As an undergraduate he was president of the American University chapter of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Guarnera has studied French in France and Spanish in Peru, and he has worked at the French Embassy to the United States and the International Peace Operations Association in Washington, D.C., and in the European Parliament in Brussels.

Why are you interested in pursuing public interest legal work?

I worked on public policy issues around drug addiction treatment before coming to UVA, and I saw firsthand the important role that public service lawyers play in creating and implementing policy. Lawyers bring a sense of credibility to so many types of work, and I thought, “I want to be that person.”

What kind of career do you want to have, or what field do you want to enter? 

I'm excited to be working at the Department of Justice this summer, and I'm looking forward to better understanding what a career in the federal government would be like. I’m attracted to a job in the government because the government faces such a broad array of legal issues, many of which you just wouldn’t be able to work on anywhere else. But I genuinely believe that all lawyers — regardless of where they work — have a responsibility to use their unique set of skills to serve the public. Public service should be part of the default approach to lawyering in general, not just describe a narrow slice of the profession.

What do you hope to achieve by participating in the Program in Law and Public Service?

I've already benefited enormously from getting to spend time with the other students in the program. They have such a broad array of interests and goals, and they are pursuing them with such passion, that it's inspiring just to spend time with them, both in and out of class. I'm confident that they'll be a strong support network, first throughout law school and then in my career. It’s especially nice to be able to be engaged academically with the same set of people for all three years of law school, which doesn’t happen ordinarily. I'm also grateful for the opportunities to work closely with the professors who manage, teach and volunteer in support of the program. I think that the chance to have a faculty mentor (who has extensive professional and scholarly experience in your areas of interest) is an especially important component of the Law and Public Service Program.


Helen O’Beirne

B.A., University of Virginia
Major: Psychology; Minor: Astronomy
M.S.W. (Social Work), Virginia Commonwealth University

Before law school, O’Beirne served as director of the Center for Housing Leadership at Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia. Her experience includes serving on the board of directors for the Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness, as a member of the Virginia Council on the Status of Women and as a board member of the Partnership for Housing Affordability.

Why are you interested in pursuing public interest legal work?

Before I came to law school, I was advocating for social justice issues at the Virginia General Assembly. I worked to improve public policy for traditionally disadvantaged populations in Virginia. And when I managed to help get a few bills passed to limit predatory loans or protect low-income people from unscrupulous mortgage brokers, I felt empowered to continue such work. But when I turned my attention to fair housing, I realized the laws against housing discrimination were already relatively strong, and that better enforcement was needed far more than better policy. I view legal training as another avenue to achieve social justice — both litigation and legislation can make a huge positive difference. My goal remains the same — to assure equal opportunity for all — but public interest legal work gives me another set of skills to get there.

What kind of career do you want to have, or what field do you want to enter? 

I plan to continue my work in the fair housing field. I believe housing opportunities are central to the success of any given person or family. Where you live makes so much of a difference in your life. It dictates where your children go to school, whether or not you have access to healthy groceries, how much crime and violence you’re exposed to, where you can work and whether you’ll be able to build equity to use for college or to start a business. Given the importance of housing, it is imperative that people make these choices free from discrimination. Sadly, illegal discrimination is alive and well in the Virginia housing market — home seekers are turned away because they have children, are African American, or have a disability. I want to work to put an end to this behavior. Again, both legislation and litigation are valuable tools for this endeavor.

What do you hope to achieve by participating in the Program in Law and Public Service?

UVA Law boasts an amazing team of faculty and staff dedicated to public interest work. The program provides access to their work, encouragement and networks. Moreover, the program creates a strong camaraderie among students who feel called to public service. Too often, public interest pursuits can lead to loneliness. After all, in most jurisdictions, this fight is an uphill battle against the very powerful status quo, and we suffer many losses along the way. But my colleagues in the program remind me that the best and brightest are working hard to make social justice a reality. The two classes that program participants take — Law and Public Service with Professor Anne Coughlin and Public Interest Law and Advocacy Skills with Professor Andrew Block — will make us the strongest public interest lawyers we can be.