Every other Friday evening, Shemario Winfrey ends his workday as director of rail projects for the Phillips 66 Company in Houston, hops a plane, and travels to Chicago. Here, he settles in at Loyola’s School of Law for a packed weekend of classes, study, and a little socializing. On Sunday afternoon, he flies back home in time for a new workweek.
It’s an intense, challenging way to spend two weekends a month. But at the end of three or four years, Winfrey will have earned a Loyola JD degree. Winfrey is one of 43 students in the inaugural cohort of Loyola’s Weekend JD program, launched in fall 2016. This innovative offering, a mix of in-class and online learning, enables today’s busy professionals to pursue a Loyola law degree regardless of their weekday schedules or geographic locations.
Evolution of a mission
For more than a century, Loyola has offered a part-time, evening JD program. “It's the way our law school began, and a vital part of our commitment to accommodating employed students who want to earn a JD,” says Dean and Professor Michael Kaufman. Like other law schools, Loyola has recently seen enrollment in its evening program decline, a reflection of many students’ heightened work and family demands coupled with an uncertain economy. Kaufman and his colleagues thought a weekend-centered program building on the School of Law’s proven expertise in online learning might answer those challenges. Market analysis confirmed their instinct. The team began constructing a program that blends two-thirds face-to-face learning on alternate weekends with one-third online study completed on students’ own schedules.
“Best practices in pedagogy tell us this kind of blended learning is actually stronger than either fully online or fully in-person learning,” says Kaufman. “Learning is not just about delivery of information, but also about the building of relationships with other students, faculty, and administrators. The on-campus time is really important, but we decided to have it every other weekend so the program could attract students from all over the country.”
The American Bar Association agreed with that approach, noting that the program is a model for future part-time legal education. Professor Nadia Sawicki, who taught for years in the part-time evening program, says adjusting the traditional curriculum for the Weekend JD program involved making decisions about what easily fit online and what was best experienced in person. The result, she says, is a stronger approach that encourages students to learn more actively.
“I use recorded lectures to give students the basics and arguments,” she says, “then we spend a lot of time in class practicing what they’re learning. It’s not passive learning; it’s very interactive.”
Diversity and dedication
According to Sawicki, the variety of professional experiences Weekend JD students bring to the classroom enriches and enlivens discussion “whether the topic is medical malpractice, car insurance, boating, or bar fights.”
“These are phenomenal students from all walks of life, experienced professionals who bring an incredible wealth of knowledge and experience,” Kaufman adds. Students, now comprising two cohorts with the addition of 50 students in 2017, include a doctor, dentists, state legislators, a farmer, university administrators, insurance professionals, a CPA, a former editor, and stay-at-home parents, among others. The group of students is diverse in age, too, with students ranging from their 20s to their 60s.
Winfrey completed Loyola’s MJ program in 2015, “and that was a springboard to deciding I was committed to getting a JD,” he says. At Phillips 66, Winfrey manages regulatory compliance with the Federal Railroad Administration and works on business development projects; for the future, he plans a career in admiralty and transportation law.
“Weekend JD students come from different industries, but we have similar backgrounds in terms of our interest in law,” he says. “We probably do a better job of relating to each other than traditional students do; we know we’re going to be battling this together for several years.”
“Knowing what everybody is doing professionally definitely enhances classroom time,” says another student, Kechia Lewis. “I love that we’re learning not just about the law, but also about how it’s applied in different professional settings.” A chemistry lab manager for the City Colleges of Chicago, Lewis originally thought she’d like to marry her interests in science and law with a career in patent law, but now says she’s open to considering other practice options.
Tagen Vaughn, who lives in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin, manages contracts and legal operations at Sargento Foods Inc. and hopes eventually to become an organization’s general counsel. “I’ve wanted to pursue a JD to grow in my career, but it seemed almost impossible working full time and being a wife and mom of two young children,” she says.
“When I found the Weekend JD program, I was thrilled. Not only was it manageable with my busy schedule, but it was at a well-known, highly credited university with a very good reputation.”
One of the School of Law’s strengths, a supportive community, is especially essential when students only see each other every two weeks. Weekend JD administrators and faculty designed the program to ensure that participants have access to career services, student organizations, and other extracurricular offerings available to traditional students.
The program provides breakfast and lunch on Saturday and Sunday, and programming—for example, a professionalism presentation or a meet-and-greet with the University president—continues during meal periods. When students need extra academic help, they have access to peer tutors just as traditional students do.
“The goal is to make sure Weekend JD students have the same community experience every JD student has,” Kaufman says. “It may be different in the way it’s delivered, but the quality is the same.”
Beyond the program’s official community-building efforts, students are forging their own connections. Some touch base regularly with classmates during the days between Loyola weekends; others go out on Saturday nights for “bar review” and bonding. One group even carpools from the Madison, Wisconsin, area, using the commute time for informal group study.
Comments Vaughn, “There’s a tremendous amount of support at Loyola. From the deans to the professors to my classmates, I feel like there’s a strong community here that will help me achieve this goal in spite of all the other things I’m juggling.”
Making the most of time
Although students have complete flexibility during the two weeks between in-class weekends, the Weekend JD coursework is as rigorous as the traditional program’s. Exceptional time management skills are key.
“You really can’t procrastinate. You have to treat this like you’re going to class every day,” Winfrey says. “I spend the same amount of time on readings and lectures as I would in an evening program, but the flexibility allows me to do things on my schedule and at my own pace.”
Lewis reviews the material she needs to cover over the coming fortnight, divides her workload, and, in case she has questions for her professors, attacks her assignments first, readings second. She’s so organized that she even plans her week’s wardrobe on Sunday nights and cooks the week’s meals on Monday evenings.
“With this program, you can keep your job and time with your family and still obtain a JD, but you have to give up something, usually your social life and some sleep,” she says, laughing.
Kudos from inaugural group
Now into its second year, the Weekend JD has progressed even more than its creators anticipated, and feedback from students is very positive. “For the most part, it’s been wildly successful,” Kaufman says. “We have many more highly qualified and diverse students from around the country seeking admission than we imagined. Our hope is that with ample outreach and a track record of success, it’ll build on itself.”
“So far, the biggest complaints we’ve received have been about lunch options on Sunday or issues with the transportation pass students receive,” Sawicki says. “So clearly we’re doing something right.”
She adds, “We keep hearing from students, ‘This program is the only way I could have gone to law school.’ Students really want to be here and are valuing this experience. That enthusiasm is really gratifying for me as a faculty member.”
Learn more about our Weekend JD Program here.