When international students come to the St. Thomas School of Law for its LL.M. in U.S. Law program, they aren’t just gaining the skills to practice law in a global context by receiving an insider’s view of the American legal system. They’re also welcomed with open arms by faculty, staff and J.D. students eager to embrace those who have traveled to St. Thomas from across the globe.
Whether it’s home-cooked meals, holiday celebrations, a place to stay, a trip to the United Nations, tourist outings, social gatherings or Law Prom, it’s no wonder our international students quickly feel like part of our community.
“I think people call it ‘Minnesota nice’ for a reason,” said Magdalena Vergara Vial, an LL.M. student from Santiago, Chile. “Everybody is so kind; they take care of us and all the little details.”
Diana Rosemberg Costa, from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, said she felt welcomed from the moment a staff member picked her up at the airport.
“I really felt part of the community from the first day I came here because of the way people embrace you,” said Costa, who came to Minnesota with her 5-year-old daughter, Valentina. (Her husband stayed in Rio de Janeiro.) “They are so concerned about your experience.”
Costa appreciates the opportunity to have different experiences with the J.D. students. For Thanksgiving, she and her daughter went to 2L Travis LaChance’s family home in Appleton, Wisconsin, along with two other LL.M. students.
“They had a beautiful house with lots of family and kids,” she said. “I felt blessed. It was good to be integrated into a family, because you miss home.”
LaChance started connecting with international students when he joined the Environmental Law Society during his first year at St. Thomas Law. Since then, he’s become close friends with many of the LL.M. students and enjoyed participating in a variety of outings with them, including trips to the Minnesota State Fair, picnics, cave exploring, shopping, apple picking, orchestra concerts and hiking excursions.
“LL.M. students have completely defined my St. Thomas experience,” said LaChance, who is now president of the Environmental Law Society. “I feel blessed to be so fully integrated in the small group of other cultures here. They got me to try so many new things, but most importantly, they force you to open your eyes to the world. When you hear about everything in the news, it’s one thing. But to become close with people who have actually gone through so much, it makes one self-reflect on how little our problems are here. They have forced me to become a well-rounded and open-minded individual. They’re so happy, loving, caring, and have brightened my outlook of the world.”
Mauricio Duarte Lau remembers being nervous when he arrived in Minnesota from Guatemala last summer. He was quickly put at ease, thanks to efforts made by the St. Thomas Law community.
“I remember Professor Neil Hamilton shooting us an email wanting the LL.M.s to come to his house for a dinner,” Lau said. “He wanted to get a sense of us and how we were doing at St. Thomas.”
Many faculty members engage international students early and often throughout their time at the School of Law. There’s a dinner at Professor Rob Kahn’s house at the beginning of the semester, many dinner parties and celebratory events with professors Robert Delahunty and Teresa Collett (who leads the U.N. trip in the spring), and biweekly lunches for deeper conversations on the Constitution with Professor Tom Berg, who also invites students to his home for Christmas dinner.
“On Mexican Independence Day, we couldn’t see the real broadcast from Mexico City, but I had the YouTube video from the previous year, so I put that in the middle of the living room and we all watched,” said Delahunty, who houses some LL.M.s and has thrown coffee and ceviche competitions. “It’s at the Zócalo – which is the center of Mexico City. The president comes to the balcony, so we watched that ceremony, and he says everybody in the crowd there has to shout ‘Viva Mexico’ three times, so I said, ‘Come on. We’re all Mexicans; we’re going to say “Viva Mexico” three times, too.’”
While that hospitality is a big part of the international students’ social lives, the attention they’re given inside the classroom is equally important. When relevant, School of Law professors will ask the LL.M.s, “How would that be done in your country?” giving them a chance to share their experiences with fellow classmates.
“A comparative perspective on legal institutions and legal rules is always valuable,” said Berg, who teaches Constitutional Law. “When somebody from Chile raises their hand and says, ‘Well, our courts handle these cases a completely different way, and here’s why,’ then American students can see what it is about our country that has made the legal system develop the way it has and how that’s not the only possible way to do it.”
After attending a presentation at an International Law Association event by two Colombian students, Delahunty was so impressed with their talk about their country’s recent peace deal that he invited them to his International Law class.
“It was dazzling,” Delahunty said about the presentation. “It was about the recent peace agreement – a revolutionary movement after 50 years. They were very skillful at presenting this major development.”
Third-year J.D. student Dan Dosch, president of the International Law Association, said he appreciates that international students are given a platform to speak about their countries. They’re always well versed on international law and politics, he said.
Vergara Vial is happy to share her thoughts when professors ask her how things work in Chile.
“We sometimes have different points of view on the issues,” she said. “Our opinions in classes are very important to having better knowledge.”
The LL.M. program is gaining momentum, said Delahunty, and the buzz surrounding the program is growing.
“I enjoy hearing about their countries and their culture, points of view and what they think about us,” he said. “I like going through a hallway where I can hear Spanish and Chinese spoken. It lifts us out of a law school in the Upper Midwest; it’s really a global law school.”
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