July 22, 2020

Law school innovates to keep new students engaged during pandemic

Faculty of Law has introduced new programming to keep new students engaged and committed over the summer
Murray Fraser Hall at the University of Calgary, home of the Faculty of Law
Murray Fraser Hall at the University of Calgary, home of the Faculty of Law Riley Brandt

In a typical year, Catherine Valestuk would have no problem finding 130 students to fill the first-year class at the University of Calgary’s law school. But this year is anything but typical, and the assistant dean of recruitment and admissions has looked to find new ways to keep admitted students engaged and eager to start classes in September.

“In the ‘before times,’ we were able to admit students and not have to worry about a significant number of them withdrawing their acceptance or deferring their start for a year,” explains Valestuk. “This year, we were concerned things could potentially be different. Would students be reconsidering if now is the right time to continue their educational journey?”

Some students had bad experiences with online classes at the end of the winter semester, and they weren’t sure if they wanted to start their law school experience in the online environment. Some were worried that they would miss out on the bonding experience the start of law school is known for. So the admissions team got creative to find new ways to keep students committed to attending UCalgary Law.

Mini lectures engage students in new ways

“We’ve launched a series of mini lectures this summer which introduces admitted students to a variety of areas of the law, from constitutional and environmental law, to critical race theory and artificial intelligence and the law,” says Valestuk. “It’s been great to see our professors and alumni jump on board to present these sessions to our incoming students.

"We deliberately looked to expose them to areas of law that they would not necessarily be studying in depth in their first year as a way of exciting them about the learning possibilities ahead.”

In addition to the mini lectures, which typically run about 45 minutes over the lunch hour or after work, the law school has provided a number of informational sessions for the various services offered to law students, including career services, student services and well-being, and attire for law students.

Valestuk explains that many of the info sessions are offered in the first month of law school, but with the shift to online learning, she wanted to give students a bit of a break.

“We give students so much information at the beginning of their law school careers that it can be a bit overwhelming. By offering the info sessions during the summer, we are giving students time to absorb the information in bite-sized pieces.”

Professor Emily Laidlaw delivered the first mini lecture in May

Professor Email Laidlaw delivers the first mini lecture in May on the topic of online privacy and shaming.

Upper-year students find ways to welcome new students

Upper-year students have also increased their summer programming to make incoming students feel welcome, and to help ease the transition to law school. Online mentoring has been set up with current students, and informal, socially distanced meet-ups are also being organized to welcome students to the law school community.

“The Society of Law Students (SLS) has had to learn to adapt to an incoming online semester,” explains SLS president and third-year student Dalal Souraya. “We know making connections throughout law school is just as important as the classes students attend. This is why our team has had to work diligently throughout the summer to find nuanced ways to connect students with one another.”

The new reality has given SLS an opportunity to re-imagine the ways they offer events, and has given the executive the time to provide support beyond what was provided in the past. The group is working on a Law School Survival Guide, which will provide incoming students with information around study tips and mental health support to what to wear during law school.

We understand that these times are uncertain, and we plan to adapt wherever possible and do all we can to make sure we are supporting our students to the best of our ability. Law school is tough, especially during a pandemic.

"This is why the Society of Law Students truly believe it is our job to do all we can will continue to plan to make students’ time at the University of Calgary as easy as possible.”

Law school will embrace the change for years to come

It’s unclear when the world will return to some sense of normalcy, but when it does, Valestuk isn’t sure she’ll return to the way things were done before this year. COVID-19 has forced the law school to think creatively about how to engage students, and those ideas should not necessarily be limited to a pandemic.

“I’m keen to keep offering mini lectures and info sessions throughout the summer for our admitted students, and expanding the program next year,” she explains. “It gives us an opportunity to ease students into law school life, which I think is appreciated when they are making such a big transition.”

Catherine Valestuk is the assistant dean of recruitment and admissions for the law school

Catherine Valestuk, assistant dean of recruitment and admissions says the new programs will continue beyond 2020 as a way to engage incoming law students.

Watch recordings of past mini lectures on YouTube

UCalgary resources on COVID-19

For the most up-to-date information about the University of Calgary's response to the spread of COVID-19, visit the UCalgary COVID-19 Response website.