Elisha Thomas smiles when he talks about his family’s hopes for his future. His parents often joke that he should be a lawyer, since he’s quick to ask questions and always ready for a debate. He may take their advice.

“I want to learn as much as I can and take advantage of opportunities my parents didn’t have,” he says. For Elisha, 16, that means reading the U.S. Constitution for fun and enrolling in SAT prep courses. On a recent weekend morning, he took perhaps his biggest step toward a career in law by attending UC Irvine’s Saturday Academy of Law.

The six-week program, created by UCI’s Center for Educational Partnerships with a grant from CaliforniaALL, introduces high school freshmen in the Santa Ana Unified School District to the field of law and strengthens their critical reading and writing skills. Guest speakers from the legal profession provide a glimpse of their own career paths, while UCI undergraduate teaching assistants help with academics and offer college prep advice. Each session features a writing assignment and opportunities for public speaking.

Sandra Nava, 16, says she willingly gives up her Saturday mornings to attend the program at the Delhi Community Center in Santa Ana. She says the experience, coupled with math tutoring after school and an SAT prep course, will “help me in the long run, as far as where I want to go in life.”

Launched in January, the academy is designed for students on track for high school graduation but possibly not aware of the range of academic and career opportunities, says Stephanie Reyes-Tuccio, director of the Center for Educational Partnerships.

“We believe there is greatness in the young people in Santa Ana,” she says. “Who knows? Maybe we are witnessing the first Latino or Latina president in the making.”

Victoria Ortiz, admissions director at UCI’s School of Law, says she supports the academy’s goals of increasing diversity in the legal field and preparing students to succeed in professional careers. Faculty from the schools of law, humanities, social sciences and social ecology serve on the academy’s curriculum and oversight committees.

“In the future, we would like our law school students to participate in programs like the Saturday Academy of Law,” Ortiz says. “I’m strongly in favor of working with young people to help them attain a competitive position as they move up the education ladder.”

Program organizers believe that fostering diversity in Orange County’s legal profession is an important long-term goal. According to academy co-director Karina Hamilton, Latinos make up only 2 percent of practicing attorneys in the county. By contrast, 33 percent of county residents are Latino. And 92 percent of Santa Ana Unified School District students are Latino.

“The lack of diversity within the legal profession in Orange County is pretty stark,” Hamilton says. “With this program, we asked ourselves: ‘How do we make the profession more representative of its clients?'”

Norma Garcia Guillen specializes in business litigation in the Costa Mesa office of Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP. Long before she started working on complicated breach-of-contract cases involving insurance and pharmaceutical companies, she competed on the mock trial team at Santa Ana’s Valley High School. The experience helped her develop critical thinking and public speaking skills needed for a law career. She expects the Saturday Academy of Law will do the same for a new generation of students.

“Our kids have the skills, but we have to nurture and guide them,” says Guillen, a member of the academy’s oversight committee. “I grew up in Santa Ana and still live in the city. I want to show these kids what they can accomplish. All you have to do is set your mind and your heart on your goals.”

Originally published in Vol. 1, Iss. 3 of ZotZine