‘We’re Here Now’

A decade after its creation, the Summer Youth Institute is leading “alums” to Eckstein Hall classrooms.

Kate Rodriguez, Lisa Xiong, Leonardo Espinoza Jimenez, and Jonathan Contreras in Eckstein Hall in September 2023.

In 2014, Leonardo Espinoza Jimenez was a seventh-grade student in the Milwaukee Public Schools, at Wedgewood Park International School, when he heard about the Summer Youth Institute, an initiative of Marquette University Law School and the Eastern District of Wisconsin Bar Association.

The program offered young people an introduction to the world of the law, including attending sessions with judges and lawyers, working with mentors, and participating in mock trials, oral presentations, and field trips to courtrooms and law firms.

“I want to join the youth summer program because I desire a better future and here I would gain early information on how to go to college and how it would be to be a lawyer,” Espinoza Jimenez wrote almost a decade ago in the essay that was part of his Summer Youth Institute application. “I know the law is one of the longest and most expensive careers, but I wouldn’t care because no matter how hard it is, I will try my best and I will never give up,” he wrote. “I am ready for the challenge ahead.”

How did things work out for him? “We’re here now,” he said with a smile as he sat at a table in Marquette Law School’s Eckstein Hall. He is a first-year student at the Law School.

Espinoza Jimenez is one of four current Marquette Law School students who got an early boost toward careers in the law by taking part in the Summer Youth Institute. One of the institute’s goals has been to encourage low-income and minority students, years before they graduate high school, to start on paths toward succeeding in college and beyond; the journeys may or may not eventually take them to careers in the law. The four students are evidence that for some participants the program, which began in 2013, does lead to the law.

For Kate Rodriguez, it is “a full-circle moment” to be a first-year law student at Marquette. She said, “I can’t believe it’s been eight years” since she took part in the institute while she was a student at Carmen High School of Science and Technology on Milwaukee’s south side.

She went on to graduate from Marquette University and, after working for a year counseling students at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, also on Milwaukee’s south side, she is now facing the challenges of being a first-year law student. “I got cold-called on my first day,” she said, referring to the practice of calling on students without prior notice to answer questions in class. She was satisfied with her response, she said, and she said she is staying on top of the rigors of law school.

Rodriguez said she has stayed in touch over the years with some of the mentors and students she met in the Summer Youth Institute. She has also been a youth leader in Mexican ethnic cultural activities, especially dance, and was named Ms. Mexican Fiesta Ambassador at the festival on Milwaukee’s Summerfest grounds in August 2023.

In 2013, Lisa Xiong was a student at the Hmong American Peace Academy, a charter school on Milwaukee’s northwest side, when she joined the inaugural cohort of Summer Youth Institute participants. In her application essay, she said that she liked to watch crime shows on television and was interested in being either a detective or a lawyer. She said the high level of crime in the neighborhood where she lived and the way she had seen low-income people treated motivated her. “I want to help innocent people,” she wrote then.

In the years since, she has graduated from high school and from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She worked for two years, including a position in child protective services in Racine County, just south of Milwaukee. She dropped the idea of being a detective, but she is now a second-year law student.

Like several of the other students, Xiong’s strongest memory of her summer institute experience was from making an oral presentation in front of others, including judges. She remembers “just being so scared to be there.” But the judges were very supportive, and the experience boosted her confidence.

This summer, Xiong was back participating in the Summer Youth Institute, this time as a law student volunteer, working with the new students as they navigated the program.

What led Jonathan Contreras to want to be a lawyer? “The Summer Youth Institute,” he answered. A career as an attorney was already on his mind. “I was thinking about law school for that long,” he said, recalling his interests nine years ago. At that time, he had completed eighth grade at Jesuit Nativity School on Milwaukee’s south side and was enrolling as a freshman at Marquette University High School.

In his application essay, Contreras wrote, “I want to challenge myself. I want to become an exceptional leader that helps out those who are in need, and I want to strengthen my relationship with God. . . . I want to lead a successful life and become a man of fortitude, skills, and perseverance.”

He went on to graduate from Marquette High and from St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin. He took a year away from schooling, working as a paralegal at the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee and in a legal clinic at the United Community Center in Milwaukee. Now, Contreras is a first-year student at Marquette Law School. He said he still stands by the ideals he set out in his Summer Youth Institute application. He has stayed involved with the institute and was a speaker at the program’s concluding ceremony this past August.

The institute enrolls about 15 to 25 students each summer, not counting an enrollment dip during the COVID pandemic, which also saw one year of the program being provided online. Participation is free. Students spend seven days, over two weeks, following an energetic schedule of programs and events at the Law School and in the community.

The institute is the realization of a dream for Nancy Joseph, a federal magistrate judge in Milwaukee since 2010. She went to legal community leaders, including Marquette Law School Dean Joseph D. Kearney, with the idea for what she initially called a law camp for students in middle or high school.

Judge Joseph, a Rutgers Law School graduate, said that she had heard of similar programs in other cities, and she thought that Milwaukee would benefit from such an effort. She wanted it based at Eckstein Hall. “I thought it was really important to have ours at the Law School, to really open the door to physically have the students at the Law School, so they could envision themselves one day being law students at Marquette or any other institution,” she said.

And so it came to pass, sponsored by the Law School and the Eastern District of Wisconsin Bar Association but with active support from judges, lawyers, law firms, and even in-house counsel offices in Milwaukee.

Joseph said, “I think it has been a great success for a couple of reasons. Exhibit A would be the four students that you are profiling. Many, if not all, are first-generation college students, who are now first-generation law students.”

The judge has stayed in touch with many summer institute alums. She said that overall, they are doing well, even if they are not pursuing law careers, and they say that the Summer Youth Institute encouraged them to envision themselves in professional positions.

But the students who are now at Marquette Law School are particularly of interest to her. “I love them,” Joseph said. “They’re just four awesome young people.”

She named each one and described the paths they had taken to reach law school. For example, Lisa Xiong, Joseph said, did an internship in the federal clerk of court’s office. Joseph said Xiong was shy when she started in that position and she set a goal for herself of learning to speak up among adults. Now Joseph sees Xiong blossoming as a second-year law student, including Xiong’s role this past summer as a Summer Youth Institute coach. “That was really, really awesome,” Joseph said.

Joseph has been a mentor to several of the four students, going back to their time in the summer program. Leonardo Espinoza Jimenez was an intern in the federal probation office, Joseph said, and he has grown in confidence while achieving academic success.

The institute remains small, by design, but the signs of success have grown over a decade. And in Judge Joseph’s eyes, nothing says that better than the students who are at Marquette Law School. “I’m just so excited that we have these four students and we’re seeing this pipeline come to life,” Joseph said.