group of students sitting around table.

Members of the First-Generation Law Students Association. (Left to right: Kim VanOpdorp '22, Chanel Powell '23, Megan Poynter '22, Shakierah Smith '22, Allison Contrera '22 and Laura Durham '22.)

Two new student groups provide tools and guidance for students in need

The rigors of law school can prove especially challenging for students facing mental health challenges or those without a lawyer in the family to help guide them through their law school career.

Enter the law school’s newest student advocacy groups: the Student Wellness Society and the First-Generation Law Students Association. Both reflect the initiative of third-year students who have experience to share and a commitment to easing the path for those who will come next.

Student Wellness Society

Cristian Cruzado ’22.

Cristian Cruzado ’22

Mental health during a stressful three years is the focus of the newly established Student Wellness Society. Founded by classmates Cristian Cruzado ’22 and Michelle Cheaib ’22, the group strives to give students the tools to manage and maintain good mental health and encourage them to seek help in crisis.

“We want to bring awareness to mental health issues and how they’re related to law students in particular, to try to destigmatize it,” Cruzado says. “Especially now with Covid and how everything has played out over the last year, things are more challenging for many people.”

He says a lot of students struggle with managing their time and their stress levels, and that struggle can exacerbate existing mental health concerns. The group is also collaborating with the Erie County Bar Foundation, which has an established program to promote good mental health among lawyers in practice.

Michelle Cheaib ’22.

Michelle Cheaib ’22

His co-founder, Cheaib, says the first year can be particularly fraught for many. “A lot of people come into law school with pre-existing mental health issues,” she says. “It’s a different animal than undergrad, and it can be incredibly difficult. If you go through law school never having it figured out, it gets worse, and you never solve it. We want to provide a better approach.”

One contribution she’s making is creating an online forum restricted to UB Law students where users can anonymously post—venting frustrations and seeking advice in a safe online space. It’s modeled after a Reddit forum for law students nationwide. The organizers also want to establish student representatives for each class to promote good mental health.

Sometimes practical wisdom is what turns out to be most helpful. For example, Cheaib says, “During my first week of law school, a 2L told me to try and complete my work for the upcoming week all on the weekend, so I could do more personal things during the week like rest, review, or see family and friends. When I finally took that advice during my 2L year, it changed the whole game. It made me feel way less stressed on a day-to-day basis.”

Our new Student Wellness Society provides an important service to our students,” says Bernadette Gargano, vice dean for student affairs. “Not just by holding events and providing new social media venues to promote wellness, but by raising awareness and destigmatizing the need to seek out mental health support and wellness services.  Law schools have long known about the need for these services, but it is a new generation of lawyers who can show a true commitment to engage with these issues and model a willingness to seek help and craft more livable approaches to law practice.

First-Generation Law Students Association

Shakierah Smith ’22.

Shakierah Smith ’22

Shakierah Smith ’22 has made her mark on the law school already, as diversity, equity and inclusion editor of the Buffalo Law Review. As president of the First-Generation Law Students Association, founded last spring semester, she and her fellow leaders are looking to help guide students who are the first in their families to attend law school.

“My first year of law school was a difficult transition, partly due to not having anyone in my family or friends who are attorneys,” Smith says. “Students like me share a common consensus that we lack access to generational knowledge about law school and the legal profession in general.”

For example, she says, she had to discover for herself what the Buffalo Law Review entailed and why it’s an important resume item, as well as how the on-campus interview process works—things students who know lawyers typically understand from the start.

“Our primary purpose is to provide first-generation students with a network of other students, first-generation or not, and provide resources so they’re equally informed about the opportunities that arise in law school,” Smith says.

Toward that end, they’ve worked to expand communication to their student members, creating a brochure with critical information, along with frequent postings on Instagram with tips and reminders of application deadlines for competitions and other opportunities.

“Our motto is ‘First-Generation Students, But Not the Last,’” Smith says. “All of the opportunities I’ve received have come from people who reached back and pulled me up.”

“Student groups have always been a source of support and camaraderie for our students,” says Vice Dean Gargano. “Being a first-generation college student myself, I know the First-Generation Law Students group will fill an important need for students from all backgrounds in law school who have navigated the waters of higher education on their own.”