The teacher: Melissa Swartz
It took a while for Melissa Swartz to get used to the catcalls.
There was something unsettling about the inmates whistling at her as she walked through the prison yard. She was their teacher after all.
Swartz, a first-year law student at the Syracuse University College of Law, tutors convicts at a maximum-security men’s prison in Central New York on Thursday nights. The 25-year-old helps felons earn their GED while behind bars, a service Swartz hopes will help the inmates make an easier transition into society once they’re released.
She joined the program, through the SU Writing Center, to supplement her education at the law school. Fascinated by the idea of criminal law, Swartz wants to understand both sides of the legal system: prosecution and rehabilitation.
‘If you believe in punishment, I hope you believe in rehabilitation,’ she said. ‘I do believe in prosecution for wrongdoings, but the only way I could honestly feel OK with doing that is if I knew it was benefiting these individuals somehow.’
This mentality sets Swartz apart from her colleagues, said Cady Gerlach, a second-year student at the law school.
As a fellow on the Pro Bono Advisory Board, an organization of law students that aims to install a sense of service in their peers, Gerlach sees her fair share of eager volunteers. Most become involved in one aspect of the legal system, such the Cold Case Justice Initiative, because they’re interested in the prosecution of old civil rights claims or tutoring at local elementary schools. She rarely sees students interested in both areas.
This makes Swartz an anomaly.
Gerlach met Swartz in the fall when Swartz began shadowing her work at the courts. Swartz was energetic and outgoing, characteristics that Gerlach said made Swartz a perfect fit for the co-chair position on the board for the Class of 2014.
But it wasn’t just Swartz’s vivacious personality that made her an asset, Gerlach said. Swartz sees things differently.
As an international student from Canada, Swartz looks at American politics with a critical eye. And because she already has a master’s degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science, she has a one-up on some of her peers, Gerlach said.
Swartz’s unique perspective made for a valuable resource on the Pro Bono Advisory Board this year and helped them win the New York State Bar Association President’s Pro Bono Service Award.
Swartz’s dedication and zest for life that leads Gerlach to believe their professional and personal relationship will last long after law school. Since becoming co-chair in November, Swartz got the law school involved in the GED tutoring program at the prison and will spearhead the first summer tutoring group since the program’s inception.
Though Swartz said it was frightening to initially meet some of the convicts, tutoring them has been the most rewarding activity she’s done at SU. She and a small group of student volunteers get the rare opportunity to help inmates better themselves by getting an education.
‘I think it’s one of those inequalities that is overlooked – individuals that are incarcerated, to come back and integrate into society is very, very hard,’ Swartz said. ‘If we want to actually have individuals be contributing citizens, then they do need to get a GED.’
That makes the job worth it.
Although Swartz has access to the inmates’ criminal records, she never looks up what the men were charged for, nor does she ask them about their criminal history. It wasn’t that Swartz was scared to find out – some of the men volunteered information or wrote about it in essays to her – but that she didn’t think it mattered.
Lynn Levey, a legal writing professor at the College of Law, taught Swartz in two separate courses. She said Swartz’s ability to recognize that many of the prisoners’ backgrounds influence a continuous cycle of violent behavior is impressive for someone her age.
‘She has compassion for people’s different experiences and wants to understand the whole spectrum of violence,’ Levey said. ‘Most people aren’t able to synthesize that in the same way.’
Swartz has a combination of both skepticism and compassion, qualities that are essential to both good lawyers and citizens, Levey said.
‘A lot of times, everybody kind of just has their head down and focused on what’s right in front of them, and she really has an interest at looking more broadly at things. And I think that’s unusual.’
Swartz’s father, Brian, said he knew his daughter would be a lawyer by age 2. She was very bright, he said, and knew what she wanted. Swartz has always gone after what she wants and always gets it.
Said Brian Swartz: ‘She could convince you that red is white if she talks to you long enough.’
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