Seventeen years isn’t usually enough time to think in generations. That’s not true for the School of Law’s Mentor Externship Program, which started when the school opened in 2001; the program has forged hundreds of powerful relationships with students and professionals and been ranked as the top externship program in the nation every year since 2010.

Included in that history, now, are true generations of mentorship, including Sarah Kilibarda ’04, Kathy Klos ’07 and 3L Juana Cardenas. Kilibarda mentored Klos, and Klos is now mentor to Cardenas, a line of women all with ties to immigration law.

“It is pretty special,” Klos said of her middle position in the thread of mentors. “It’s an example of what the university offers beyond the classes. This experience is all about the practical experience and personal interactions. That’s so cool.”

Klos now works as an attorney with the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, but as a 3L student was still working toward understanding what she wanted to do professionally. After two strong mentors her first two years, she found in Kilibarda a great example of the working balance she could find.

“She took me to housing court … and I was fascinated that she was able to jump in and use her expertise,” Klos said. “It opened my eyes to the fact I can also do pro bono work or have that pro bono focus, even if I decide not to go that route career-wise. She’s a great model of what I could achieve professionally.”

Kilibarda has mentored consistently since graduating with the inaugural class in 2004.

“It is pretty rewarding. It’s fun to meet with people I normally wouldn’t get to see, and it’s a great way to stay connected to St. Thomas and the law school,” she said. “It’s also fun to see where people land after school; to think I had a tiny part in that is rewarding. It helps build communities, relationships, networks.”

That network has now expanded to Cardenas, who traveled (exactly) 1,000 miles from Fort Worth, Texas, to become a Tommie. Forming relationships with practicing attorneys has been invaluable to the first-generation law student.

“I think our school does a great job at helping, particularly students that are first-generation lawyers, and especially first-generation minority students,” she said. “I never knew an attorney. I went to college and grad school and never ran across that. [The externship program] really helps students who have no history with attorney gain that understanding.”

In large part because students can tailor their experience to either focus on what they already know they’re interested in or explore different fields, Cardenas said the externship program has helped her develop a sense of her own interests and practice.

“It’s a work in progress and you learn your own lawyering style. The mentorship program is so dedicated to that,” she said. “It’s helped me find my own leadership and lawyering style, and I don’t know if I would have that if I had gone to any other law school.”

That feeling is no accident: As program director Judith Rush points out, even across hundreds of pairings every year, each one is individually made; there is nothing random about the creation and support of these relationships.

“Ultimately, we want them both to receive benefit from the relationship. That benefit follows from engagement,” Rush said, pointing out the 80-plus percent retention rate for mentors the program boasts. “It’s so cool we have mentees who are mentoring. We have a lot of those. We have three generations or more of mentor relationships at this point, which is pretty awesome.

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