New Group Within the College of Humanities and Sciences Aims to Help Students, Community

The Law and Society Honor Society, less than a year old, is already having an impact.

In the summer of 2020, rising senior Bendriel Oniyama wanted to establish an honor society within the law and society program in which she was majoring.

Researching what it would take to make the idea a reality, she brought the concept to program director Evan Laine, who concurred that it would be a great move.

“I thought that it would help with student engagement, so I started asking around about what it would take to start a Law and Society Honor Society. I was told, ‘Yeah, that doesn’t exist,’ and there was no real reason why it didn’t,” recalls Oniyama, who received approval to start the group from national honor-society officials. “Well, I thought that it could exist. There was nothing really stopping it, other than the fact that nobody had started it yet.”

Law and Society Honor Society
Items donated to the Law and Society Honor Society's fundraiser benefited numerous groups helping Philadelphia's unhoused population including Hub of Hope.

Oniyama and fellow students—including Aliyah McLaurin, Kaitlyn Viola and Meredith Stitt—honed the group’s bylaws, while frequently taking suggestions from other students in the major since the organization is designed to cater to everyone.

In the fall semester, the Law and Society Honor Society’s (LSHS) inaugural group had been established. The LSHS currently includes 10 members who were recruited/qualified to join based on campus leadership qualities, grades and faculty recommendations. While there has been no formal induction ceremony yet, thanks to remote learning, there are plans to hold one after midterms.

Oniyama, who emigrated from Liberia with her family as a child and has been a Philadelphian ever since, has since served as the group’s magister (president). She and McLaurin, the group’s exchequer (treasurer), recently spoke about how, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the LSHS has already held a successful charity event to collect essentials for Philadelphia’s unhoused population. It has also raised several thousand dollars to help fund LSAT courses for peers who otherwise might not be able to afford them.

This is something special for our major and will impact future generations of Law and Society program students. –Bendriel Oniyama

Though they’re both seniors on pace to graduate at the end of the spring semester, Oniyama and McLaurin are establishing a roadmap for the group to expand its efforts and implement new ones involving mentorship in the future.

“This is something special for our major and will impact future generations of Law and Society program students,” says McLaurin, who is currently applying to law schools. “We wanted to start the LSAT class because it’s very expensive for tutoring and applying for the test in general, so we created a fundraiser to have organizations and tutors come in and help. We’re moving along with that. We’ve raised $7,000 so far and hope to raise more for the fall of 2021.”

The LSHS group also collected items to donate to those living in the “Tent City” along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway last fall. Bags of items including backpacks, clothing, toiletries, diapers, masks and food were collected on the back patio of the Arlen Specter Center and donated to Hub of Hope and other likeminded civic organizations.

“While the Honor Society is academically based, our mission statement is about fostering well-rounded individuals who care about the world outside of themselves and want to be involved in it,” says Oniyama, who will pursue a career in foreign affairs and diplomacy upon graduating.

“With the ‘tent city,’ many people were complaining about its location. At the same time, the homeless don’t have an option,” she continues. “It’s not like people want to be homeless. With winter approaching, and the pandemic, too many terrible things were converging on a vulnerable population at once. We wanted to help in any way we could.”

LSHS fundraiser
LSHS leaders Bendriel Oniyama and Aliyah McLaurin with many of the donations made to their fundraiser outside the Roxboro House in East Falls.

McLaurin says it was amazing to see so many people bring bags and bags of clothes to donate, as well as receiving financial donations from the Jefferson College of Health Professions (JCHP).

Nannette Fromm, the associate dean of the college, helped coordinate that contribution to the effort. She has known Oniyama for several years, as the student was part of a JCHP summer enrichment program which introduced rising high-school juniors and seniors to biotechnology.

“We loved her so much that she did her senior project on diversity programming with us, and then stayed on over the summer to work in our STEP-UP pipeline programs with the Provost’s Office,” says Fromm. “The fundraising drive allowed faculty and staff across the campuses to come together to support an extremely important cause. It was a very exciting year-end event worth contributing to.”

The honor society has taken very seriously the majors’ dedication to service and advocacy. –Evan Laine

This meshes with the mission of the group, which is to “continuously promote academic improvement, consistency and excellence in the students of Jefferson’s Law and Society major (and) seek to create opportunities for involvement in activities outside of traditional classroom settings in order to facilitate the development of not only well-rounded future leaders in the legal field, but well-rounded human beings as well.”

The group is currently working with the Academic Success Center to bolster the tutoring program, ideally with a tutor to work directly with students in the program.

Efforts to establish a mentorship programs for first- and second-year students are also in the works, and the group hopes to set up annual fundraisers and a scholarship program.

'Tent City' fundraiser
Items for the fundraiser were collected at the Roxboro House in East Falls.

Oniyama and McLaurin know that they’ll be leaving the LSHS in good hands when they graduate, as well. Kaitlyn Viola, a junior who currently serves as vice-magister, and Meredith Stitt, a sophomore who is the LSHS clerk, will take over lead roles.

“They have been on the Board since the very beginning and help with all the events we host and are planning,” Oniyama says, noting that Viola, who was among the original members, is already spearheading the mentorship and tutoring programs. “Meredith does a wonderful job with all of the organization’s record-keeping while also researching our different events and programs.”

Laine could not be prouder of the students.

“The honor society has taken very seriously the majors’ dedication to service and advocacy,” he says, celebrating their efforts with the charity drive and LSAT courses. The latter “will greatly increase students’ ability to be accepted by top law schools. I am very proud of them and look forward to what they will accomplish in the future.”

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Life at Jefferson