Brooklyn Sawyers Belk addresses students about the challenges and advantages of attending college during the Diversity Pipeline Program on March 4, 2019.

College of Law program helps underrepresented students explore university life

Brooklyn Sawyers Belk stood before a classroom of students at the College of Law this week, encouraging them through the retelling of some of the stories of her life.

“I was like many of you,” she said. “I was a first-generation college student, and my family’s socioeconomic status made it seem as though there was no way I could afford to go to college.”

Sawyers Belk talked about the challenges she faced as a single mother throughout undergraduate and law school. 

“I don’t encourage anyone to do it the way I did it,” she said. “My daughter was two, and there were days when I had to bring her to school with me. And it was hard. It was embarrassing. It was stressful. But my alternative – not going to school and not finding that life for myself – was worse.”

Sawyers Belk, an attorney and adjunct professor at the University of Tennessee College of Law and a 2006 alumna, wasn’t addressing a class of college students. On this day, she spoke with a group of nearly 70 underrepresented students from South-Doyle, Austin-East and Fulton High schools in Knoxville. 

The students visited the College of Law as part of the Diversity Pipeline Program, designed to introduce those from underrepresented communities to the value of a college education and the variety of career opportunities that exist for those with a legal degree. 

Through the program, Admissions Director Sarah Busse said students “learn about careers in law and receive support and encouragement from University of Tennessee College of Law staff and faculty on how to pursue a college degree.”

Over the course of the students’ day-long visit, they attended a typical law class with criminal law Professor Joy Radice, engaged in a question and answer session with current students, learned about resources that aid student success, and heard from alumni about how to avoid common pitfalls in their careers. The students also shared lunch with law professors.

While this is the first such partnership with local high schools, Busse said she believes it is important to continue to grow it in order to help students from underrepresented communities gain a better understanding of the possibilities that exist for them.

“Of course, we are committed to recruiting a strong pool of diverse applicants. We also want to create that ripple effect that can result in a more diverse presence throughout the legal community,” Busse said. “We want to see these students be successful in all walks of life.”

Sonja Wood, a college and career coordinator who attended along with nearly 20 students from South-Doyle High School, said it was important to her to provide the opportunity for underrepresented students to learn more about the University of Tennessee.

“Most of them have never entertained a notion of anything beyond getting a job, drawing a check, or, at most, going to a community college,” Wood said. “So I wanted to expose them to this as early as their freshman year. We have ninth graders here today, too, just so they can see what’s possible.”

Wood said the event was the best she’s attended in her more than eight years of assisting college-bound students, and she was surprised by some of her students’ responses.

“I’ve seen one girl smile today who I’ve never seen smile before,” Wood said. “They are engaged, interested, and asking questions. I’ve seen their eyes light up.” 

Aaryanna Billingsley, a 16-year-old South-Doyle High School junior, said she’s considering attending college at the University of Tennessee.

Her academic strengths in science are leaning her toward a career as a doctor, she said. But during her visit to the College of Law, law students and professors made her rethink her aptitude for arguing and practicing law.

“I’m the kind of person I like to plan ahead and be ahead of my class,” she said. It’s been good “hearing about the work ethic these students have and how they support each other.”

Also by learning about student organizations like the Native American Law Student Association and the Black Law Student Association, Billingsley said was better able to envision herself at the College of Law.

“Knowing that there are African-American and Latino student groups here, it makes a difference,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting that.”