For many young people, meeting their favorite actor or singer might cause them to swoon. For California State University, Fullerton student Maiyah Lyles, though, her fangirl moment came when meeting a different kind of star: Orange County Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Macias.

“She came to campus and told us her story,” Lyles said, “and in my head, I was thinking, ‘This is the person I want to be.’”

Lyles is one of only 20 undergraduate students selected out of 150 applicants to participate in Chapman University Fowler School of Law’s summer Pre-Law Undergraduate Scholars (PLUS) Program, which introduces community college and university students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds to the law school experience.

“This program is an opportunity to expose students to what law school is going to be like and what they’re going to need to be successful in the law school application process,” said Justin Cruz, Assistant Dean of Admission and Diversity Initiatives at the Fowler School of Law. “What it really does is allows us to develop campus leaders who will also become the next generation of law students.”

Thanks to a three-year, $300,000 grant from the Law School Admission Council (LSAC), participation in the program is provided at no cost to students, in addition to their housing and meals. Over five weeks, they take several law classes, which are taught by both Fowler School of Law faculty and guest instructors from local courts and law practices.

“The PLUS students learn about important law topics including immigration law, criminal law, and legal research and writing,” said Fowler School of Law Dean Matt Parlow. “The skills gained in this program help students build confidence and a develop sense of what it takes not only to get into law school, but also to be successful in life.”

PLUS students in classroom

For five weeks each summer, PLUS students get a taste of what it’s like to be a law student, both in classrooms and through service projects.

In addition to their work in the classroom, PLUS students also work on service projects with nonprofits and legal clinics in the local community, including Catholic Charities, Community Legal Aid Society of Orange County, Public Law Center, and Veterans Legal Institute.

“I would go to Catholic Charities and everything I learned in class was applied there,” said PLUS student Khalea Edwards, “but it’s heightened, because it’s real life.”

For Lyles, not only has participating in the PLUS program reinforced her interest in a legal career, but by introducing her and her classmates to working attorneys and exposing them to the day-to-day reality of being a lawyer, it has painted a clearer picture of what a legal career might look like.

“The best part has been getting to meet attorneys,” Lyles said, “Just to see them living and breathing. On TV, you just see them arguing in court. It makes the job more realistic for me, knowing what they actually do and what I need to do to become an attorney.”

This year’s PLUS students hail from around the United States—14 come from California community colleges or universities, and six are from out-of-state institutions, including four students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

“One goal of the program is to expose students from outside California to the vibrant community and family found at Chapman,” said Cruz. “Students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities typically do not have as much access to pre-law programs, so to be able to bring them to Chapman from their respective campuses on the East Coast is really exciting.”

Edwards, who will be studying political science at the University of Missouri in the fall, heard about the program through her relationship with the Princeton Prize in Race Relations, which she received from Princeton University in 2017 for her work toward improving race relations at her high school. A St. Louis resident, she was inspired to become an activist by a personal tragedy in her family that happened about the time of the controversial Michael Brown shooting in nearby Ferguson, Missouri.

“I want to be a lawyer not only to create change within my community, but also to create societal change,” Edwards said. “Kids in communities like mine need faces of color in positions to really engage – not just lawyers, but to see people who are in higher positions – it does make a difference. It does matter.”

Although launched in only 2017, Fowler’s PLUS Program has already seen productive results as the graduates of its inaugural session complete their undergraduate studies. First-year participant Cole Clark joined the Kappa Alpha Pi pre-law fraternity at University of California San Diego as director of professional development and was recently admitted to the University of Southern California Gould School of Law. Another 2017 alumna, Jenna Balsiger, is already working in the law profession as a legal assistant as she finishes her last semester at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in December and studies for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).

“We’re directly impacting the lives of students who don’t have parents or family members who went to law school,” said Cruz. “They go back to their respective schools with this network, this skill set, and a thirst for leadership. We want every student to leave this program feeling like they belong in the legal profession.”