Tackling UH Law School with kids in tow and getting support to make it work

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
Cynthia Quinn, (808) 956-7986
Associate Dean for Student Services, William S. Richardson School of Law
Bev Creamer, 956-6545
Media Consultant, William S. Richardson School of Law
Posted: Aug 18, 2012

At the William S. Richardson School of Law, it’s not uncommon to see children sitting through classes with moms or dads, darting through corridors, or sipping milk in the student lounge. The school on the UH Manoa campus prides itself on its welcome of “Students With Keiki” and has built a support program around the growing number of students hitting the law books while also raising young children.

On the eve of a new semester that starts Aug. 20 with 86 freshmen, 16 part-time evening students and 13 international Master’s degree students, the school brought the incoming class together for an afternoon picnic.  In attendance were parents and children, a clown, and an informal advice circle offering survival strategies from student parents who recently graduated or are part way through school.

“If you feel overwhelmed, talk to the deans.  They’re very supportive,” advises Summer Shelverton, a May graduate who gave birth between semesters in her first year. “I felt I could always ask for help,” agreed Mericia Palma Elmore, also a May graduate.  “I remember sending many emails that began, ‘Can I just come in and talk? I need help with this…’”

The support group for students with keiki was begun several years ago to assist students struggling with double life loads. Law Lecturer Liam Skilling, Director of the Evening Part-Time Program, remembers how important it was when he was a student with a young child. Now he’s a sympathetic faculty adviser who helps orchestrate an annual Halloween party for the kids and ensures there’s a “keiki room” at other Law School campus parties.

The support system is particularly important as a transition for students from beyond Hawai‘i. When international student Elmira Hadzhieva was looking for an American school to pursue a Masters of Law degree, she remembers how two important words on the school’s website caught her eye: family friendly.

“This school is the best thing that ever happened to me,” says Hadzhieva, who moved from Bulgaria to Hawai‘i a year ago with two young children just as her husband, a security specialist, was posted to the American Embassy in Mongolia.

“‘Are you sure you want to do this with two little kids?’ he asked, and I said, ‘I’m 100 percent positive,’” recalls Elmira, who received her LL.M. in May, with her children holding tight to her graduation robes. “Coming from Eastern Europe, and a Communist country, where the relationships are very formal, we don’t have this kind of aloha family environment. My classmates and the professors were just awesome and supportive. This was something very new.”

With college graduates looking for ways to define themselves for a highly competitive workforce, finding the right match for graduate training can be an arduous task. At Richardson Law School, one of the most diverse and innovative in the nation, the match is made easier by a warm-hearted faculty and an unusually kid-friendly atmosphere – all of it hand-in-hand with exceptional legal training.

“Including keiki in the life of the Law School is a way of recognizing that juggling school, work, and parenting is a reality for many of our students,” says Skilling. “It also comes naturally because the faculty, staff and students at Richardson really are one big ohana.”
Robyn Pfahl, who graduated in May, remembers how tough it was to move from Montana and to adjust to rigorous classes – with two toddlers under four years of age – and how much it meant to have understanding professors willing to make adjustments plus a daycare on campus. “You can’t study when you’re worrying about your babies,” said Pfahl.

“I wouldn’t have been able to go to law school if I hadn’t found an amazing place for my children," Pfahl continued.  "And I had nothing but support from all my professors. When I was run over by a car, they helped me get through it, giving me extensions, and an incomplete in one of the classes. That would never happen in a big law school where you’re just a number. It’s the spirit of this Law School.”

This past year, before formal graduation ceremonies in May for more than 100 new JD and LL.M. degree candidates, there was a special ceremony just for the children. During that ceremony, almost a dozen youngsters stepped forward to receive a "diploma" asserting they’d been the best “helper” ever for mom or dad during law school.

“My daughter hung it up in her room,” says Mericia Palma Elmore, who started law school in 2009 as a single mother, marrying her second husband, filmmaker Gerard Elmore, halfway through. “She was very excited about it. For me going through Law School with the kids at their age has really put something in their brains that they can do anything.”

Dean Avi Soifer called the pint-size graduation “a new tradition” at the Law School and had special words for the children: “There were wonderful shorter people around,” he said with a broad smile. “They enlivened the lives of all of us.”

See the Law School's website at http://www.law.hawaii.edu/.