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Philippa Greer Headshot

Harvard on Trial

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A proud product of a state school education in Scotland, I was skeptical. Reading the acceptance letter alone felt like being admitted to Hogwarts/pronounced a witch. Moreover, immediately arriving on campus from a voluntary legal internship in Alabama, I might be forgiven for thinking that the disturbing features of American criminal justice and the South's peculiar preference for capital punishment would become a distant nightmare once I had arrived in the comfortable surroundings and, (for America) uncharacteristically historic, buildings of Harvard Law School. I wondered if we would get to the right side of the questions that mattered the most.

So like any good lawyer, I embraced the overwhelming path ahead with my wits about me. Yet in revealing contrast to the glamorous, effortlessly intimidating Harvard of popular myth, I have found the law school to be both immensely welcoming and uplifting and, at times, immeasurably entertaining. Not only has Harvard- and John F. Kennedy's enduring legacy- allowed me to continually address the injustices I was worried might escape me, it has also proffered some of the most memorable experiences of my (albeit infant) legal career.

Glancing up to scriptures on the cornices of the law school pub that read: "And do as adversaries do in law, strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends", or walking the halls to be greeted by a parade of black and white portraits of its great and unfathomable professors, it is exceptionally difficult to forget that you are at Harvard (which is lucky, given that it is seemingly our intention to ensure all future friends and acquaintances do not forget either).

From day one, orientation is far more curious than the British experience of Freshers' Week. We are treated to champagne mimosas over breakfast, are wined and fed, partake in a mass "speed meeting" of our future classmates and enjoy an outdoor screening of Legally Blonde (yes, the concept of irony has drifted across the pond too). As my classmates and I pet micro piglets at the "petting zoo" to relieve orientation stress, I reflect on whether Obama would have been inclined to do similar, consistently overcome by the American enthusiasm of it all.

Yet behind all of the socializing, witty frivolities and alluring splendour, it is impossible to avoid being struck by the stark realization that Harvard Law School is a truly remarkable academic institution. Each professor's teachings are strong and quick, alive with that vitality that a powerful identity radiates. Eternally charismatic, the stone columns of its buildings usher in a sense of optimism, giving us young lawyers the belief that we can do things to make a change in today's world.

Intensive reading groups are hosted by Supreme Court Justices, forcing students to analyse in depth the last term of the highest court in the land, trial tactics are taught by the former appellate advisor for the defense in the O.J. Simpson murder trial and, in a couple of weeks, the mother of the slain teenager, Trayvon Martin, and her legal team, will be arriving in class. We are continuously invited to lead with our eyes on the next horizon (and also prepped about the "imposter syndrome" widely experienced here, as well as the complexities of "type A personality dating").

This endless impressiveness speaks to the haunting grip that Harvard Law School maintains on the world's imagination. Enveloped by the most famous litigators, academics and leaders of social change in the world, the law is taught here within a living context in which the students are active participants. These young lawyers are offered unrivalled experiences; though this barely does justice to the subsequent years that they will have as key players in the legal world- or so the alumni fundraising office hopes (that, and for the bright eyes of "rising 2Ls" to meet across the dusty books: a bonus ingredient for maximum donor potential, we are told).

Similarly, my fears of experiencing a separation from the real life struggles of the law are proven to be unfounded. Within the first few weeks of my studies, both Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative, and Stephen Bright, founder of the Southern Center for Human Rights, visit campus to ensure Harvard students continue to confront injustice. Gideon's Army is screened and the wife of the late Derrick Bell- one of the originators of critical race theory- speaks to encourage students to address the modern chapter of the Civil Rights Movement.

In sum, I do not find myself intimidated by the splendour of "Veritas", rather, I am inspired and, in part, this stems from the knowledge that the potential of young lawyers is being actively promoted within and outside of the classroom. Moreover, nobody asks from where you've come, only where you will be going (which is ironically problematic, given the duty I have to explain that Scotland is not a part of London, which is, in fact, a city).

It is the British sarcasm within me that instantly seeks to question the hype- and I hold that sarcasm dearly. Yet, at Harvard Law School, the beginning of my experience has confirmed that it would be offensive to do anything but trust it. The opportunities are endless. With a twinkle of crimson, it's easy to arrive at the conclusion that anything is possible here. Harvard Law School puts its money where its mouth is- albeit at times with the jarring twang of a Bostonian accent.

Philippa is one of the 2013 Kennedy Scholars. For more information about Kennedy Scholarships to Harvard and MIT, visit: http://www.kennedytrust.org.uk/