Taking the Initiative

Vanderbilt's new Public Service Initiative enables recent graduates to gain work experience while working in the public interest.

Adrienne Schlichtemier
Adrienne Schlichtemier '09
Regional Attorney
Tennessee Justice for Our Neighbors
Nashville, Tennessee

A combination of skill, hard work, support from the Public Service Initiative and timing led to 2009 graduate Adrienne Schlichtemier's position as a full-time Regional Attorney with Tennessee Justice for Our Neighbors (TNJFON). The program provides legal assistance and advice to asylum seekers and other immigrants who need help navigating a complex maze of rules and laws that affect their lives. "This is basically my dream job, straight out of law school," Schlichtemier said. "I'm working directly with people who really need help."

The TNJFON office in Nashville, where Schlichtemier is based, is associated with Justice for Our Neighbors (jfon), a national program headquartered in Silver Springs, Maryland, which was founded by the United Methodist Committee on Relief to offer community-based legal clinics and other support to immigrants. jfon now has offices housed in churches in 20 states, where its legal staff is supported by trained volunteers who conduct monthly intake clinics where they interview potential new clients using methods designed both to maintain confidentiality and avoid giving legal advice. Clients who need legal assistance that TNJFON can provide are referred to a staff attorney; in Nashville, that's Schlichtemier. "We're a volunteer-driven organization," Schlichtemier explains. "After the initial interview, clients have an opportunity to talk to an attorney about their case. Our mission is to help immigrants seeking to reunify their families, secure their immigration status, and enjoy the right to work in the United States, but we don't do employment-based relief; we focus on family-based and humanitarian immigration issues."

Schlichtemier started working at TNJFON in September 2009 through the Public Service Initiative under the supervision of Regional Attorney Katherine Esquivel, a Harvard Law graduate who started jfon's Tennessee office in April 2008. "Even from the beginning, I was handling cases of my own," Schlichtemier said. Experience she had gained through her summer work during law school helped her hit the ground running; Schlichtemier worked at the Tennessee Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence after her 1L year and spent her 2L summer working at the Rose Immigration Law Firm in Nashville. "I wanted to do non-profit immigration law, and I wanted to practice in a small law office," she recalled. "Dean [Sue] Kay told me about Tennessee Justice for Our Neighbors, and I was able to get a Public Service stipend to work here. It's been a perfect fit for me. I've learned so much so quickly, and I'm doing exactly the kind of work I wanted to do."

The stipend enabled TNJFON, which has funding for only one staff attorney, to bolster its services by having Schlichtemier work there 20 hours a week for six months. When Esquivel left TNJFON to join the Nashville Public Defender's Office last winter, Schlichtemier was offered the full-time position as TNJFON's Regional Attorney. "I'm the only attorney on staff here," she said, "but it's not more than I can handle. My supervisors at the national organization are smart, experienced immigration lawyers. Our board of directors is really good about supporting me, and Katherine is still involved as our executive director. We have offices in 20 states, so I have colleagues all over the country."

“This is basically my dream job, straight out of law school. I'm working directly with people who really need help.”

Many of Schlichtemier's cases deal with U visas, which are granted to victims of serious crimes who assist in the perpetrator's prosecution, or the Violence Against Women Act, which offers relief to individuals whose spouses are abusive. She acknowledges that one difficult aspect of her job involves working with individuals who have suffered as a result of criminal acts or spousal abuse. "I have one client who was a victim of rape when she was 12," Schlichtemier said. "A lot of our clients have very hard stories. To help these people get work permits and legal status is a huge, life-changing thing. It's been such a privilege to work with them."

Although a few cases have involved Asian and African immigrants, most of Schlichtemier's caseload involves Spanish-speaking immigrants from Mexico and Central and South America. Her staff includes a part-time translator, but Schlichtemier confessed, "I speak a little Spanish, but it would be really helpful if I spoke more."

A native of Shreveport, Louisiana, Schlichtemier also earned her undergraduate degree in English at Vanderbilt. "After eight years, Nashville feels like home," she said. "I'm really grateful that the Public Service Initiative not only helped me find my dream job, but enabled me to stay here."

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