Jennifer L. Rosato Perea takes mentoring seriously – so much so that she spends several hours every day advising students, faculty and staff at her school, Northern Illinois University College of Law.
“Because I felt very isolated making my way through law school, I consider it in part my responsibility, and my honor, to change the experience for others,” said Rosato Perea, one of four Latina law school deans in the U.S. “Mentoring one-on-one or with groups is now organic to the general fabric of my life.”
In a telephone interview, she said her most basic mentoring involves readying law students for interviews, speaking with them about their research and the papers they are writing and generally helping them shape their professional development. She coaches her directors as both managers and team players, noting: “It’s important for them to get my sense of things and also to make their own way as strategic planners.”
Mentoring faculty members – especially those who aren’t tenured – is more complex. “I can be particularly useful, I think, in showing them the ways of the institution and in both describing my path and working with them to develop their pathway, to unlock what they care about. I can then give them opportunities to grow and lead in those areas.”
Working within national organizations, such as the Association of American Law Schools, Rosato Perea says she is helping to ready new teachers for the classroom. “Pedagogical training isn’t required of law professors,” she said. “At least now there is a primer as we’ve brought education psychology, techniques and assessment methods into legal education.”
Rosato Perea herself has extensive teaching experience. Graduating with a B.S. in social work from Cornell University, she earned a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. A year clerking and another year as a law firm associate became the prologue to more than 20 years in academia including teaching posts at Villanova University School of Law, Brooklyn Law School (where she was a professor and associate dean of student affairs), U Penn and New York University School of Law.
She was acting dean during the inaugural year of Drexel University Earle Mack School of Law, and then professor of law and senior associate dean for student affairs.
LAWDRAGON: What drew you into legal academia?
JENNIFER L. ROSATO PEREA: My path to academia started with my love of teaching — beginning with small children in preschool and primary grades. In college, I was a social work major focusing on children and learned about the legal system, especially as it affected vulnerable children in our society. After attending law school, serving as a judicial clerk and practicing for a year at a medium-size law firm, I knew I wanted to combine my twin passions for teaching and law. I began my academic career as a legal writing instructor and then a tenure-track professor.
LD: What distinguishes your institution from other law schools?
JLRP: We have an intimate, collegial community in which the faculty, administration and alumni support the success of each and every student from orientation to after graduation. NIU Law is integrated into the university and the entire Northern Illinois community through, for example, clinical programs in the surrounding area; active alumni and student participation in bar associations, and our emphasis on public interest careers. In the State of Illinois, we offer a unique combination of excellence and value, which allows our graduates to pursue their own unique paths to the profession – and to do so with significantly less debt.
LD: What are your biggest challenges as dean and how are you meeting them?
JLRP: One of the biggest challenges we face as a small public law school is continuing to secure resources to build and expand our excellent programs, and to recruit wonderful, dedicated students who, with the right guidance and training, will become successful lawyers and leaders in their communities. To meet this challenge, we are in the midst of a fundraising campaign to help support student-centered initiatives such as internships, bar grants and fellowships. We recently were awarded a grant from the Illinois Attorney General’s Office to help develop and operate our new Foreclosure Mediation Clinic, adding to our growing family of experiential training facilities that includes our Health Advocacy Clinic, our Civil Justice Clinic and our Juvenile Justice Clinic.
Another challenge is how to remain competitive with other law schools in a shrinking marketplace. Here is where NIU Law can really shine as we have all the advantages of a larger law school with access to resources throughout one of the largest legal communities in the world – Chicago. At the same time, we’re nestled in a small community-focused, community-driven locale – with class sizes and faculty access similar to those of a smaller, private institution. It’s really the best of both worlds, and we must continue to emphasize that to prospective students.
LD: Are you seeing trends in the jobs your students take after graduation?
JLRP: We see and have responded to a continued increase in graduates’ interest in public service. NIU Law has consistently delivered graduates to the public forum: Nearly one-third of our graduates have followed careers as public defenders, prosecutors and judges.
In fact, in recognition of this commitment, the school has been honored with an Excellence in Pro Bono and Public Service Award from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois and the Chicago Chapter of the Federal Bar Association. It was recently named as one of the National Jurist’s top 20 law schools for public interest/government. The law school now has close to 90 NIU graduates who serve in the judiciary across the nation. That means nearly 1 of every 40 NIU graduates has become a judge – a testament to their integrity, leadership and their NIU Law training.
LD: What are your thoughts about being regarded as a role model, especially to women of color?
JLRP: I always feel self-conscious about being the center of attention in that way, given that my mother emphasized humility and always remembering where I came from. At the same time, I appreciate my accomplishments and know that they can make it more intimidating than inspiring to follow my lead, to aspire to do what I’ve done. That’s the downside of being held up as a role model.
I try to break that down by being very open, by sharing my stories, which in the past I didn’t always do. I’ll tell students during orientation, for example, that I started out just like them and that the core values leading to success – hard work, never taking short cuts, perseverance and never giving up – are the same. I try to be authentic in ways that help.
I’m cautious about telling of my missteps, however, because women administrators are still vulnerable to criticism and to being thought of as less than competent. There is an important difference between humility and presumed incompetence; I respect that difference. I will tell people that what I’ve done was and is hard; I’ve had to make hard choices. I had to leave my teenage daughter in Philadelphia, for example, to come here. With my faculty and staff, in particular, I also try to own my mistakes. I’m willing to apologize and talk about how I could have done better.
Can I be a role model for many audiences? Look, everyone knows my “box” – I’m a minority woman. My presence in the world, who I am and what I do, naturally makes me a role model for women of color – and I’m very conscious of that. Others may see me as their role model for my qualities outside that box.
LD: What do you do when you’re not being dean?
JLRP: I’m pretty passionate about running, and have quite a collection of running shoes, including a pink pair that I use for inspiration for the annual Susan G. Komen “Race for the Cure” in Philadelphia. I see running shoes as a metaphor for passion and energy and always moving forward – much like our lives. I also enjoy spending time with my daughter – she is growing up so fast! In addition, my husband and I enjoy live music and restaurants. Strolling the neighborhoods in Chicago, finding good music and good food is a particularly nice pastime for us.
Contact Margot Slade at (646) 722-2623 or firstname.lastname@example.org.