Reaching Out: Law student inspired by her year of teaching in Detroit

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Law student Katie Michels finds inspiration in a photo on her fridge of students she taught through Americorps.

“Whenever I begin to forget the ‘why’ and want to give up on law school, I look at it,” says Michels, who spent a year after college teaching at Osborn High School in northeast Detroit. “Those students deserve the world and nothing less. I won’t stop until they have every opportunity other children in this country have without them having to face an obscene amount of barriers to achieve their goals.

“My experience at Osborn High School was simultaneously accompanied by the realization of the injustices present within our inner city school systems and neighborhoods,” she adds. “You certainly don’t need a law degree to make a difference or to create change, but I do believe that law will give me the tools I need to fight back alongside a community I care deeply for.”

A 1L student at University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, Michels earned her undergraduate degree in criminal justice and anthropology from the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

“I wanted a better understanding of why individuals committed crime, more so the sociological aspects associated with it,” she says. “The only way to create solutions to prevent crime is to try to grasp why it’s occurring in the first place.”

During undergrad, Michels did a 12-month intership with the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office.

“I would speak with Detroit residents during some of the absolute worst times of their lives,” she says. “The majority of our cases involved homicide, sexual assault, and child abuse. I would serve as their advocate and sit near them as they testified to be a source of support and encouragement.” 

She also volunteered as a teacher’s aide and mentor at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti.

“Inmates have a certain stigma in our society,” she says. “The women I had the privilege to work with were nothing short of strong, intelligent, and inspiring. You are not defined by your mistakes and always have the opportunity to change your path. I enjoyed watching them learn, grow, and empower each other as women throughout the year.”

A native of Wayne who now lives in Detroit, Michels enjoys the law school’s commitment to the Motor City.

“It’s an energy you feel as soon as you walk in,” she says. “I truly believe they’re trying to create a diverse class of students that are going to do the one thing Detroit needs the most—stay. We see far too many people come here and then take their talents elsewhere. UDM is trying to break that cycle.”

Michels does not yet have a specific focus and career goal.

“I have a very open mind and do not have a particular area I’ve honed into as of yet, but I know where my passions lie,” she says.” I have a deep belief that if you’re passionate and work hard, the right opportunity will present itself.”

She would like a career in politics, whether working on a campaign or eventually running for office. She currently is an elected precinct delegate, serving as a link between the neighborhood voters and the Michigan Democratic Party; and also has volunteered by canvassing and phone banking on various campaigns.

“It’s a nice thought to be in a courtroom ‘fighting for justice’—however, in my opinion, by that time it’s too late. Someone’s already been through a traumatic experience, while another has potentially thrown their life away,” she says. 

“Having the opportunity to be in politics enables us to fight on the forefront for policy changes involving all societal factors, whether it be education, economic, health, and so on. We have to reform these areas before we can even touch the criminal justice system. It’s through these changes we can prevent crime from occurring in the first place. I want to dedicate my life to making sure no one ever has to set foot in a courtroom. Realistic? Maybe not, but imagine what we could achieve if everyone felt that way.”

Michels also makes time to volunteer at domestic violence shelters.

“The mothers are extremely overwhelmed in these settings and I do my best to provide support in whatever way possible,” she says. “This usually turns into me playing games with the children, such as ‘the floor is lava’ and ‘ballerina’ for countless hours.  I’ll do whatever it takes to make those children forget about their current hardship, even if it’s only for a short time.”

Michels is grateful to her family for her academic success.

“My father and grandfather didn’t graduate from high school, yet they taught me everything I’ve ever known about hard work,” she says. “It was through them I realized education isn’t everything. A person can have the most prestigious education and still lack character.  While I’m proud to be a first-generation college graduate and a first-generation law student, I’m the most proud of the person I am because of them.”
 

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