Black law school applicants will have option of new admission process at University of Calgary

There's a new admissions process for Black law school applicants at the University of Calgary, a move that follows the call to action by the Calgary chapter of the Black Law Students Association to address systemic racism in law.

If a Black student isn't admitted, their application will go to the Black students admissions sub-committee

Keshia Holloman-Dawson is the president of the Calgary chapter of the Black Law Students Association and one of six Black and biracial students out of more than 350 students at the University of Calgary's law school.  (Photo: Aaron Rogers)

There's a new admissions process for Black law school applicants at the University of Calgary.

Earlier this summer, the Calgary chapter of the Black Law Students Association put out calls to action to address systemic racism in law.

The calls included an admissions reform, easing financial burdens for potential BIPOC students, providing anti-racism training to law students, incorporating a more diverse faculty and more.

The new application process is intended to provide space and visibility for Black applicants and to address the under-representation of Black students in the law school and the overall legal community.

Keshia Holloman-Dawson, who is going into her second year of law school, is the Calgary chapter president of the Black Law Students Association.

She said there is a lack of representation of Black students in the faculty. For example, she says there are only two Black students in her law class, including herself, she says, and one Black student heading into third year. As of now, the society knows of possibly three Black students going into their first year of law at the university.

She wants to double those numbers.

"I think often people think it's an empowering thing to be the only one or the first one. And in many circumstances, it's quite the opposite. It's isolating," she said.

Catherine Valestuk, assistant dean of recruiting and admissions at the law school, says the school recognized that a need for action was needed.

"There is an enormous amount of emotional labour that had gone into those calls to action by our students asking us for what they needed and we wanted to be responsive," she said.

Criteria unchanged

On the application, those who self-identify as Black will be asked to write an essay on their connection to Black culture, or the impact of institutional, structured or personal racism on the applicant or their family, or both. 

The process is voluntary and people are not required to do any of the above if they do not wish to, Valestuk says.

She added all students are assessed on the exact same criteria, which looks at experiences of students as well as their Law School Admission Test score and their grade point average. It also looks at their writing ability.

However, if a Black student isn't admitted, their application will be reviewed by up to two members of the Black students admissions process sub-committee, which includes members of the Black Law Students Association, Black law faculty members, and Black members of the wider legal community.

Valestuk says this will help prevent rejection based on implicit bias or systemic racism creeping into the process.

Keshia Holloman-Dawson is going into her second year of law school at the University of Calgary. She's also the Calgary chapter president of the Black Law Students Association. (Submitted by Keshia Holloman-Dawson)

The Canadian Association of Black Lawyers said in an emailed statement to CBC that it's essential for the legal community to reflect the diversity of the community. 

"We are well aware that there are some law faculties in this country where Black people are underrepresented … steps must be taken to address this," the statement reads in part.

"When there is representative diversity in the faculty and on the admissions committees, we may see a change in the student representation at the law schools."

Application for fall 2021 law school admissions is now open.

Valestuk said the school is dedicating more of its recruiting budget to attracting more diverse students. She says it's "critical," since the underrepresentation of Black students, not just at the U of C law school, but in law schools across the country, leads to an underrepresentation of Black lawyers.

Holloman-Dawson says a mentorship program for Black law students is starting up and that the group collaborated with a BIPOC mental health group to provide Black students with targeted mental health support and different cultural resources.

"There's lots of proactive measures in place," Holloman-Dawson said. "Hopefully, they'll kind of intermingle with each other to create more of that community space within the faculty."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


With files from Laureen Laboret


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