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Kristen Jackson ’02 – What COAP Means to Me

COAP helps students pursue the career they desire

One program that has a significant effect on students’ decisions about whether to enter the public interest field is the Law School’s Career Options Assistance Program. Since 1989, COAP has made it easier for students to take the job of their choice—whether in a smaller firm, a nonprofit organization, public interest, government service, or academia. One of the first loan repayment programs of its kind, the program became a model for similar programs across the country. Today COAP remains one of the most generous loan repayment programs and continues to help students pursue the career that they desire, rather than the one that might be necessary to repay their loans.

COAP continues to be an incredibly popular program. Since its inception, more than 1,500 Yale Law School students have received more than $30 million in benefits. 

The effect that COAP can have can best be told by a story from one of its participants.

Kristen Jackson ’02
“What COAP Means to Me”

My path to law school was not given. I am the first lawyer in my extended family. Ranchers and farmers on my father’s side and housekeepers and trolley car operators on my mother’s side— not attorneys—preceded me. Yet my parents’ strong focus on education (they were both teachers while in their religious orders) prepared me well for law school. I chose to apply to law school while working at the Legal Aid Society in East Harlem. There, I learned that law can be a tool for social justice that I am capable of using.

When researching law schools, I paid special attention to financial aid—not only that provided during the three years of courses, but also following graduation. I had to pay for law school myself, and I knew I would go into public interest and that my salary likely would not cover my modest expenses and the large loan repayment I knew I would have. COAP, combined with the clinical program and stellar faculty, made Yale Law School my first and only choice.

My worst day of law school was not the day of my first final, or the first time Owen Fiss called on me in Civil Procedure: It was the day, close to graduation, when we were all corralled into a room and given a PowerPoint presentation on our law school debt and when we would start to repay it. I knew I had a lot of debt, but there was something about seeing the total, in black and white, that was shocking. I eventually talked myself off the proverbial ledge that evening, reviewing all of the COAP materials and knowing that I would have help in managing and eventually coming out from under my loans.

Since then, COAP has provided me with peace of mind. I think I have been spared a lot of stress—and many grey hairs—by my knowledge that YLS has prioritized my ability to make decisions without always having to put my loan repayment concerns first. Operating without this psychic burden has allowed me the energy and clarity to engage fully in my life and work without having to have an alternate career waiting in the wings in case the debt became too weighty. I have been freed to work with my clients to face and overcome their own challenges—rather than fretting about my own loan issues, which unquestionably pale in comparison.

COAP, to be sure, is not supporting a luxurious lifestyle—I still live in 585 square feet and drive my 1997 Volkswagen—but with it I have options. I am in the process of buying my first home, made easier by my dwindling debt and my savings. And these savings, if needed, will further my public interest career. I do not doubt that even after next year—when I finish paying off my loans and no longer participate in COAP—COAP will have long-lasting effects for which I will always be grateful.

I hope that YLS will maintain and even expand upon COAP. I think that it is one of the law school’s most concrete expressions of its support for graduates’ entering and maintaining public interest careers. It goes beyond theoretical or moral support to address some of the financial barriers that prevent people from staying in public interest. It also makes YLS unique in its support for public interest work—I have never run across a loan forgiveness program as comprehensive as COAP—and surely helps to attract highly talented students who are not aiming for lucrative careers.

Kristen Jackson ’02 joined Public Counsel in Los Angeles as a Liman Fellow seven years ago and is now a senior staff attorney. She represents children in juvenile dependency, delinquency, and probate court and federal administrative and court proceedings to obtain Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. Jackson also serves as a lecturer at University of California Los Angeles School of Law, where she co-teaches an asylum clinic.