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Educating needy children is his goal

By Kristina Horton Flaherty
Staff Writer

Jesse Hahnel
Hahnel

As a teenager, Jesse Hahnel received an “amazing” education through a special urban magnet school program that bused in children, Hahnel among them, from more affluent, predominantly white areas outside Washington, D.C. But through the years, he also watched as disadvantaged minority children all around him received a terrible education at the same school.

It was a troubling image that helped steer Hahnel down a path — from Harvard to teaching stints at struggling inner-city schools and, finally, to Stanford Law School.

“My passion is increasing the educational opportunities for disadvantaged youth,” he says. “As a lawyer, I could have a really positive impact on the kids who needed it the most and change the kind of education they got. I could represent individual kids, but I could also really make a difference at a larger level.”

For his deep commitment to children’s issues, Hahnel, 31, recently was awarded a California Bar Foundation Law School Scholarship and was named this year’s Jim Pfeiffer Scholar in honor of the foundation’s founding executive director.

Hahnel is just one of 39 law students who each received foundation scholarships of up to $7,500 this year—a total of $187,500 in scholarships—to assist with tuition and related education expenses. The recipients, from 17 law schools, demonstrated a commitment to public service, as well as academic excellence and financial need.

The Scholars:

Thirty-nine law students received a scholarship from the California Bar Foundation. The students, their law school and the sponsoring law firms are:

CALIFORNIA WESTERN Catherine Pugh — Dreier Stein & Kahan LLP Scholar; Anne Marie Rios

GOLDEN GATE UNIVERSITY Anna Benvenue; Kira Murray

JOHN F. KENNEDY UNIVERSITY Peggy Bristol-Wright

LOYOLA Jonathan Ames; Jessica DeWitt; Ashley Ruiz

NEW COLLEGE OF CALIFORNIA Rana Chang

SANTA CLARA UNIVERSITY Nicole Clemens

STANFORD Brian Bilford; Kristin Burford; Jesse Hahnel — Jim Pfeiffer Scholar; Ruth Zemel

UC BERKELEY Lindsay Harris; Vanessa Ho — Seyfarth Shaw Scholar; Melinda Pilling

UC DAVIS Nagmeh Shariatmadar

UC HASTINGS Raegan Joern; Matthew Melamed; Abigail Sullivan

UCLA J. Andrew Boyle — Milstein, Adelman & Kreger Scholar; Vivek Mittal; Shayla Myers — Fulbright & Jaworski L.L.P. Scholar; Carmina Ocampo — Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP Scholar; Desmond Wu

UNIVERSITY OF THE PACIFIC McGEORGE Victor Copeland

UNIVERSITY OF SAN DIEGO Hasmik Badalian; Rebecca Blain; Desiree Serrano

UNIVERSITY OF SAN FRANCISCO Phyra McCandless; Hannah Seigel

UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA Emma-Elizabeth Gonzalez — Cox, Castle & Nicholson LLP Scholar

VENTURA Denise Trerotola

WHITTIER David Minh Duc Do; Melissa Duchene; Melinda Gomez; Amy Kaye and Kelly Nguyen.

Six of the top recipients received scholarships named for a sponsoring law firm that pledged $30,000 each over three years. (Go to calbarfoundation.org.)

“We are thrilled to invest in impressive law students committed to giving back to their communities,” said foundation board member Bradley S. Phillips, a partner at the sponsoring firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson. “It is an investment in human capital that will benefit the justice system for years to come.”

When student loan debt can reach $100,000 or even more, taking a public interest job can be challenging. The foundation scholarships recognize law students for their commitment and help ease their debt.

Born in Maryland, Hahnel was raised by educators — his mother is a special education teacher and his father is a college professor. But his first job teaching eighth grade math in Washington, D.C., still came as a shock. “The resources that these kids got was abysmal,” he recalls.

Hahnel was not given any curriculum and classes often did not have teachers. “These were kids who really needed education the most; it’s the only way they were going to make it in life,” he said. “It broke my heart.”

During a second teaching stint in New York City, he found similar problems — and began considering a legal career as a way of making a broader difference. First, he went to work for the KIPP Foundation (a national network of charter schools), which, he says, was the “logical next step” in light of his growing interest in education reform.

Hahnel then returned to Harvard for law school. But at a conference early on, he was so inspired by Stanford law professor Bill Koski—director of Stanford’s Youth and Education Legal Program—that he switched schools to work with him.

While at Stanford, Hahnel has represented children with disabilities in administrative proceedings through Stanford’s Youth and Education Legal Clinic and has worked on education issues at Public Advocates and the National Center for Youth Law.

Most recently, he has turned his attention to the plight of foster children in group homes. He points to recent changes in California law that could improve their lot: Such children, often shuffled between homes, now have the right to stay in the same school through the academic year. They are entitled to partial credit if they do move mid-term. They must be allowed into class at a new school even if their records have not arrived. And they have the legal right to an “educational surrogate” who will shepherd them through their schooling—a perfect role, Hahnel suggests, for pro bono attorneys.

But while such changes “look good on paper,” Hahnel says, there is little implementation or enforcement. “So they’re basically empty promises,” he said.

Currently, the third-year law student is seeking fellowship funding to advocate for foster children in Bay Area group homes and to work statewide for better implementation and enforcement of such changes in the law.

“This group of kids is really in need of advocacy, Hahnel says. “They don’t have parents to advocate on their behalf. They are some of our most disadvantaged children.”

According to a recent foundation study, Hahnel’s commitment to public interest law appears to be shared by many past scholarship awardees as well. Since 1992, the foundation has awarded more than $2 million in law school scholarships to nearly 500 students and nearly two-thirds of the tracked alumni are still practicing public interest law.

“Investing in the next generation of public interest lawyers,” said foundation President Scott Wylie, “is a cornerstone to building a better justice system.”

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