Elisa Cozad and Rachel Mathisen, both former winners of LSJ’s Stromberg Award, given annually to the student who best combines academic excellence with a demonstrated commitment to social justice, recently won similar honors at their law schools.
Cozad graduated from LSJ in 2006 and went onto UC Davis Law School where she was chosen for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Service Award by her peers at graduation for her ongoing commitment to public service.
Cozad said that the classes in LSJ inspired her to go to law school.
“The classes were amazing because they were dealing with social issues in the field that I was interested in, like criminal justice, human rights, immigration and the intersection of geography and law,” Cozad said. “In LSJ, you learn about systemic problems and potential solutions as well as how to think outside the box.”
Mathisen graduated in 2008 and is currently attending UW Law School. There, she earned an award for her pro-bono work. She also agreed that LSJ classes impacted her decision to pursue a career in public service.
She said that Professor Mayerfeld’s International Human Rights class kept her passionate about human rights and Professor Herbert’s Introduction to Criminal Justice class was her first glimpse into the disparities that exist in the criminal justice system.
“What I love about LSJ was that every class sparked my interest in social justice. LSJ solidified that public interest is what I want to do and that I can work towards social justice for the rest of my life,” Mathisen said.
Cozad said that along with her classes, her volunteer work was an important part of her decision to pursue a career in public interest and social justice.
Cozad has volunteered with the Immigration Law Clinic, the Prison Law Office and the Federal Public Defender in Sacramento.
“The combination of classes that were engaging and eye-opening as well the faculty and internships that I got through LSJ solidified my interest in working with the underprivileged and those that are discriminated against,” Cozad said.
As a junior at UW, Cozad interned with the District of Columbia Public Defender Service in Washington. D.C. She worked as an investigator, which meant she interviewed witnesses, took statements, visited clients and performed criminal background searches.
“The moment that I really realized that this was what I wanted to do was my summer internship in D.C., because prior to that I didn’t realize how privileged I was. Just seeing a 16 or 17 year old in prison because they were charged as an adult was sad,” Cozad said. “They never stood a chance.”
She said that her internship allowed her to see the racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
“People are not treated as humans, there is a pressure to slide people through the system and people don’t have the education to realize their rights to understand what’s going on,” Cozad said. “Once you realize that there is this disparity, you feel obligated because of your privilege and the opportunities that you’ve had to do something about it.”
Cozad now works as a public defender in Colorado Springs where she represents clients with misdemeanors and traffic offenses.
“I like my job because of the clients. I enjoy interacting with them and empowering them and seeing what we can do as a team,” Cozad said. “It’s an uphill battle because you feel like you are doing the right thing, like trying to protect a client, but there are a lot of people against you.”
Cozad said that receiving awards for her work has been flattering but at the same time motivated her.
“A lot of times in public defense, you are considered the bad guy so to have people recognize how important and necessary your role is in protecting people, that is a nice thing,” Cozad said. “It helps you continue to do the work you are doing because in this profession, a lot of people don’t understand.”
She said that the work she does is challenging but the fact that there are people out there who support and encourage her enables her to continue.
“It motivates you to go further, that recognition makes you feel good and continue to work to make things better,” Cozad said. “So [getting an award] feels really good that people recognize the work that you put in and the countless long hours.”
Mathisen also agreed that the awards motivated her to continue on with her work in public service.
“It’s important for me to participate in public interest activities and I can’t imagine life without volunteering,” Mathisen said. “It provides meaning and I can’t imagine not giving back and not working toward social justice.”
Mathisen is part of the Pro Bono Honors Program, a program of the Center for Public Service Law that encourages UW law students to provide pro-bono legal assistance to low-income communities through volunteer service projects like the Immigrant Family Advocacy Project.
“It was a way for law students to work directly with clients and help clients with paperwork to make sure that they stay in the country,” Mathisen said. “It’s a super cool program because so much of law school is theoretically-based so this was a way for me to work directly with clients in need.”
Through the program, Mathisen worked with other first-year law students to draft a shadow letter on behalf of the Center for Reproductive Rights to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women regarding the status of women in Nepal. As the team leader, she was able to research and share sources with her group about an issue that she is passionate about.
“We have an ethical obligation in Washington to do pro bono work,” Mathisen said.
Mathisen said that she started volunteering at a young age and that her parents instilled in her that it is important to give back. She also really likes that LSJ encourages students to give back to the community.
“Conversations in the classroom were focused on taking an active role, not just sitting back,” Mathisen said. “It was focused on what people on the ground were doing to make a difference.”
During her time at UW, Mathisen was involved with the Save Darfur student organization, which is now STAND, the student anti-genocide coalition. As an active member, she helped to raise thousands of dollars to Doctors Without Borders and also sent letters to different representatives to raise awareness about the genocide.
“Being part of STAND was a way to talk to people on campus about what was going on and try to make a difference,” Mathisen said. “It was a good way to bridge what I was learning in school about international human rights and what was going on at UW.”
She said that although she is very committed to her current public interest path, she sees the Stromberg award and the pro-bono award as affirmation that it is good to pursue public interest work and that other people have done it before.
Mathisen said that she ended up donating a portion of the Stromberg award to the Genocide Intervention network because she felt that it was important that she use the money for something that would make a difference.
“The Genocide Intervention network is an awesome organization and I knew that they could do more with the money than I could,” Mathisen said.
Mathisen said that working with student organizations has been a concrete way to make a difference on issues that she cares about.
“There are a lot of student organizations in law schools as well and I’m using the techniques that I learned in LSJ,” Mathisen said. “So much of law school is theoretically-based and LSJ has really helped me to remember that the law affects people.”
Besides attending law school as a full-time student, she also is part of the UW Center for Human Rights and the UW Jewish Law Students Association.
After graduation, she plans to follow in Cozad’s footsteps and become a public defender.
This article was composed by Charlotte Anthony