With no sand, surf, or slopes in sight, Kansas City isn’t a popular destination for students looking to unwind over spring break. But that didn’t matter to Sabrina McDonald ’23 and Julie Varughese ‘23. They were there to get to work, along with six other St. John’s Law students who volunteered with the Federal Defenders Capital Habeas Team and at Legal Aid of Western Missouri as participants in the Spring Break Service Program coordinated by the Law School’s Public Interest Center.
“I volunteered for the program because I’m passionate about working with indigent individuals and advocating for those who can’t otherwise advocate for themselves,” McDonald says. During her week at Federal Defenders, she reviewed trial transcripts, conducted research, and accompanied attorneys to Nebraska, where they visited a client. “This experience is something I’ll carry with me as I start at Brooklyn Defender Services in the fall,” McDonald shares. “My time in Kansas City reminded me of why I came to law school, and why I’m going to be a public defender. More importantly, this experience taught me to never stop fighting. Never stop advocating. Being a public defender won’t be an easy job, but it will be the most rewarding thing I do.”
Volunteering in Legal Aid’s Human Rights Division, Varughese drew on values instilled in her at a young age because of her immigrant parents' involvement with their local communities. “I witnessed how daunting the justice system can be for those unfamiliar with local and state laws, especially when they have no one to turn to for help” she says. “Those experiences motivated me to become a lawyer.” As part of her work in Kansas City, Varughese interviewed farmworkers who suffered from labor exploitation and sexual assault, did door-to-door outreach to inform migrant workers of their rights, and reviewed a client affidavit, among other assignments.
As she immersed in her Service Program experience, Varughese witnessed the impact that Legal Aid lawyers have on their clients. “I saw how they enable those with even the heaviest of burdens to feel hopeful that there can be change,” she explains. “When I become an attorney, I want to bring that same level of care, support, and positivity to my workplace and clients. No person's identity, background, socioeconomic status, or circumstances should diminish their ability to receive justice, nor should it leave them at a disadvantage when navigating the legal justice system. I couldn’t be more proud and determined to enter public interest law and help the people who truly deserve it.”
While McDonald, Varughese, and other St. John’s Law students were serving the greater good in Kansas City, 24 more Spring Break Service Program participants volunteered in a range of in-person, hybrid, and remote work settings, including:
“I volunteered to learn more about environmental law practice,” says Sandy Durst ’25 of her week with NYLPI. In addition to studying laws applicable to polluters, she researched and helped to draft a letter to Governor Kathleen Hochul outlining why polluters shouldn’t be exempt from New York’s restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions. “I saw that discrimination comes in many forms, and one form is the placement of polluting industries in disadvantaged communities,” Durst says. With that new insight, she went into the field to attend a Green Our City Now event. “We got to brush shoulders with environmental leaders from across the city, and asked them to sign on and support our letter,” says Durst. “It was inspiring to see the day-to-day operation of environmental justice firsthand.”
Like Durst, Caroline Johnson ’25 also had a formative Spring Break Service Program experience as she volunteered with the Safe Center LI. “I was placed with a senior staff attorney whose primary focus area is family law, domestic violence, and sexual assault,” she says. “I conducted legal research; drafted memos, affidavits, petitions, and letters; sat in on meetings with clients; and even did a bit of investigating on social media for evidence to support a case.” As she built practical skills, Johnson also gained valuable perspective.
“More than anything, this experience opened my eyes to the absolute necessity of nonprofits and public interest work,” she shares. “Many of the clients coming to the Safe Center are dealing with horrific situations. On top of their anxiety comes a fear of the legal system. After spending the week hearing their stories, I have come to understand that those fears are in no way unwarranted. I also understand that a legal education is an absolute privilege, and the opportunity to use it to help others should be a calling that every law student should feel and follow. I know with absolute certainty that I will be using my education to serve the public interest.”