Rodina Parnall, the former senior policy advisor to the assistant secretary of Indian Affairs, is joining the American Indian Law Center as the assistant director for the Pre-Law Summer Institute for American Indians and Alaskan Natives.
PSLI is an intensive 8-week program designed to prepare American Indians and Alaskan Natives for their first semester in law school.
Parnall, currently an adjunct professor at the UNM School of Law, will be taking over for Heidi Nesbitt as director of the institute next year. Nesbitt has been in the position since 1984 and will be retiring.
Helen Padilla, the director of the American Indian Law Center which houses the Pre-Law Summer Institute, said she is excited to have Parnall joining.
“Parnall’s skills and commitment will support and advance the mission of the Law Center and the PLSI,” Padilla said in a press release.
The American Indian Law Center, which was established in 1967, is the oldest existing Indian-managed and Indian-operated legal and public policy organization in the country.
The center is located within the School of Law and, while no longer directly supported by UNM, was a part of the University until 1977.
“We’ve always maintained a very close relationship with the Law School,” Nesbitt said. “Both the American Indian Law Center and the School of Law have benefited from our great relationship.”
Since its inception, the Pre-Law Summer Institute has taught over 1400 Native American students interested in law school, according to Nesbitt.
Parnall said PSLI, which she attended in 1998, focuses on producing high caliber Native American advocates to represent Native interests across the country.
The institute was formed in 1967 by Frederick Hart to address the slim number of Native American advocates practicing law and enrolled in law school. It still has the same goals today, enrolling Native Americans from across the country to be taught by some of the most renowned Indian law professors in the nation, Nesbitt said.
“PSLI isn’t just preparing students for UNM (Law School) - it’s preparing students for law schools across the country,” Parnall said.
The 8-week course was designed to be intensive, mimicking a semester of law school, Nesbitt said.
“This isn’t a remedial program,” she said. “We teach it just like a law school class and we’re not throwing anybody any bones.”
Parnall mentioned that, along with the rigorous course load, the institute focuses on forming a valuable support system for the graduates.
“I went through PSLI in 1998 and tutored in 1999, and I still get the support (from PLSI),” she said.
Jannette Mondragon, a second-year law student at UNM, also went through PLSI and noted how critical the institute was for her success in law school.
“If it hadn’t been for PLSI I would not have survived my first semester of law school,” Mondragon said. “They provide you not only the support emotionally, academically, financially, but it’s like a family pushing you through to reach your goals.”
Parnall, a first-generation lawyer, noted how critical attending the 8-week course was to her succes.
“In PLSI I learned how to schedule my semester to have time for studying, briefing, outlining, and practicing exams. I started law school two weeks after the program ended and brought my new skills with me,” Parnall said.
Nadine Padilla, a second-year law student, said the institute produces Native Americans who have an interest in advocating for their underrepresented communities.
“It’s really important that we have Native lawyers who can represent the different issues and where we’re from. I think it’s a good thing for us to be a voice for our communities that are underrepresented or represented poorly,” she said.
Parnall also noted that while there are many non-Native American advocates, many tribal leaders are looking for Native Lawyers to represent their interests.
Nesbitt, the current director, agrees.
“There’s a special knowledge involved in representing a Native person or a tribe,” she said. “It’s terribly important that people representing Native American interests understand the stakes.”
“There aren’t a lot of Native American lawyers but there are a lot of Native American issues,” John Morseau, a second-year law student, said.
He believes creating more Native American law students is the first step in creating more Native American lawyers.
With many institute alums having reached success in their careers, Parnall is excited for the institute’s future.
“I hope to continue the tradition of academic excellence in the program while keeping up with innovations and changes in legal education,” she said.
Brendon Gray is a news reporter for the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @notgraybrendon.