The Latin American Law Student Association

The Latin American Law Student Association (LALSA) is a student organization at Widener University School of Law-Harrisburg that promotes Latino awareness and participation in the legal community. LALSA was first established at Widener Law School in 2012 by a group of students and faculty in order to create a forum to discuss Latino issues, both international and domestic, that are important to law students.

In the past three years, LALSA has assisted in organizing several events that help promote awareness in Harrisburg’s local community. Since its establishment, members of LALSA have organized bake sales and food drives to raise money to benefit local Latino communities. Typically, these fundraising events take place at the school where students can raise money while also promoting the organization’s mission and current objectives. For example, each year LALSA members participate in Widener Law’s yearly Relay for Life fundraising event where members contribute time, money and food to help the American Cancer Society. This year, LALSA President Vanessa Diaz and LALSA Vice President Johelys Cecala decided to expand fundraising efforts by working collaboratively with local Latino restaurants and businesses in the Harrisburg area to receive donations for the event and expand LALSA’s networking base. As a result, LALSA was able to receive donated gifts from Fiesta Mexico, El Rodeo Restaurant and Chipotle Mexican Grill.

Additionally, LALSA members assist the Pennsylvania Bar Association (PBA) by participating in Widener’s annual Minority Law Day. Some LALSA members are asked to participate in panels where they share their law school experiences with high school students, while others individually meet and speak with students over lunch. The attending high school students are from African-American, Asian and Hispanic decent and have expressed an interest in a career in law.

This past year, Diaz, Cecala, LALSA Secretary Rachelle Cecala and student members Erika Lezama and Dana Prince participated in the program by sharing their experiences in law school, noting the importance of academic achievement and discussing how their ethnicity shaped their experiences.

LALSA has also successfully organized several discussion panels and group events that bring the students and alumni together. For example, each year LALSA organizes a panel where local attorneys come to Widener Law School and speak about their legal careers and, specifically, about how their ethnicity influenced or affected that experience. In addition, each year LALSA co-sponsors the Widener Law Minority Alumni Honoree Reception with the Black Law Student Association (BLSA) and honors a Widener alum whom the organization feels has shown exemplary commitment to the legal field and to his or her community. This year, LALSA honored alumnus Julia P. Coelho, Esq. for her significant contributions to the Latino community. Diaz and Cecala presented her with an engraved gavel memorializing the event on behalf of the organization.

One of the benefits of being in LALSA is that members have access to a wider network of attorneys and professors who handle issues that affect the Latino community. Jill Family, an immigration professor at Widener Law, has connected a number of LALSA students with local immigration law firms, organizations and attorneys in the area. Family also helped Cecala get involved with the Pennsylvania Immigration Resource Center (PIRC), a nonprofit organization in York, Pa. After learning of Cecala’s passion to help the Latino community, Family forwarded her an opportunity to assist PIRC attorneys translate legal documents for people applying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA). This positive experience motivated Cecala to continue working with PIRC, and she volunteered at the organization during the 2015 spring semester, her last semester in law school, by assisting PIRC attorneys with U visa and T visa applications as well as Violence Against Women (VAWA) claims and employment applications.

Cecala also assisted attorneys with asylum, cancellation of removal and withholding of removal claims, which allowed her to develop her research and writing skills and be exposed to a number of Latino issues with regard to immigration in the United States. Also, although the demographic at PIRC does not consist entirely of Latino clients, many of the people Cecala assisted were of Latino decent, something that she personally appreciated since she felt that she was helping her Latino community.

This experience sparked Cecala’s interest in immigration law and motivated her to pursue a career as an immigration attorney. Like Cecala, other student members in LALSA have benefited from LALSA’s positive reputation of helping and giving back to the Latino community.

Each year, the organization’s members bring forth new and creative ideas that continue to make an impact not only at Widener Law School, but in the community as well. The 2015 LALSA board members hope that, as the years pass, LALSA continues to grow and expand its mission and objectives.



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