Issa DiSciullo,
Assistant Dean for Admissions,
the Earle Mack School of Law at Drexel University

"What Is Experiential Learning?"

Issa DiSciullo, Dean of Admissions, Drexel Law School, interviewed on DeLoggio

As young as she may look, Dean DiSciullo's experience covers a number of years and institutions. Before coming to the Earle Mack School of Law, she was the director of undergraduate admissions for Johnson C. Smith University in North Carolina. Previously, she held positions as the director of admission at University of South Carolina School of Law and associate director of admission at Northeastern University School of Law. While at Northeastern, she also earned her master's degree in higher education leadership.

Dean DiSciullo is especially suited to her position at Drexel, as she was at Northeastern, because her own background emphasizes experiential learning. As a teenager in the Mariana Islands, she performed in a dance troupe. Her parents vetoed her interest in acting as a major, but she still enters dance competitions, having already found her niche in Philadelphia.

Dean DiSciullo, much is being made these days of "experiential learning." Can you explain what that is and why law schools are putting so much emphasis on it currently?

Experiential learning by definition actually means “learning by doing” or “learning through experience.”  It is a concept that dates as far back as the 1930’s with John Dewey’s work – Experience and Education Dewey, 1938).  In recent years, law schools have begun to see the importance of including experiential learning opportunities in the curriculum because employers are asking for it – they need young associates who can hit the ground running.  Today’s employers – and their clients - are looking for law school graduates who have not only developed their knowledge of theory and the law but have complemented it with the skills necessary for successful practice. It makes enormous difference if a beginning attorney has written briefs not just for a class, but for a busy partner who’s in the midst of a major case.  Likewise, it helps if a young practitioner begins her career having already prepared a witness for testimony in an actual case, having navigated the complexities of an administrative hearing on behalf of a client, or having helped an inventor secure a patent.

I know that you spent five or six years at Northeastern before joining Drexel. These two schools both operate a co-op program, and as far as I know, are the only two law schools in the country that do. Do you see this as an advantage in the current legal environment?

Having the opportunity to study in a practice-based curriculum where “learning by doing” is embedded into every aspect of the law school experience provides students with an enormous edge, particularly in today’s legal market.  Schools such as Drexel and Northeastern embrace the idea of learning by doing whole-heartedly and it permeates through all aspects of a law student’s career.  It isn’t seen as an afterthought; rather it is the way the law school and the entire university is “hard-wired”.  As a result, these schools provide law students with more ways to engage in experiential learning.  It isn’t just through the traditional internships (or co-ops as they are referred to at both Drexel and Northeastern) and through numerous clinics and pro bono opportunities. It can also manifest itself in the classrooms - in the ways that faculty design their courses and assignments.  At Drexel, for example, some of the professors have ingeniously created simulations, such as negotiating deals in the Transactional Lawyering classes, that give students firsthand experience while they’re still in the classroom. Law students who graduate from schools with a strong emphasis on experiential education have a more robust, diverse and dynamic resume to present to employers, setting them apart in a challenging legal market.

Knowing the importance of professionalism in the workplace, are you actively seeking students who are older or have significant work experience?

There is no doubt that Drexel and schools that have extensive experiential learning programs value students with professionalism and maturity.  After all, many will be representing the school at co-op and clinical opportunities as early as the summer after their 1L year.  But, admission professionals have learned over the years that professionalism and maturity don’t always correlate to an applicant’s age.  The average age of our students at Drexel is 24 or 25 (depending on the year), which means a good number of our students come to law school straight from their undergraduate experience or maybe with just 1 to 2 years of work or life experience.   However, many of these students have proven to be our best students – our greatest success stories.  So while we do value maturity and professionalism at Drexel, we don’t necessarily look at that to mean an “older” student. 

And what would you advise a younger applicant to do, especially considering that only a handful of them can attend Drexel?

The "secret" to a student's success isn’t so much age, but the experiences they chose to participate in before attending law school.  Successful students have taken advantage of leadership opportunities presented to them throughout their life – from leading a Division I team to a championship, to participating in Teach for America or the Peace Corps, to seeking out summer internships with their local firms or state offices and officials. My advice to any applicant looking to differentiate their application from the rest of the pool is to put forward a strong application that shows a balance between a solid academic profile and great extra-curricular and leadership experiences. 

Thank you, Dean DiSciullo!

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