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community service

Learning to bridge the gap between people, communities and the law

University of Tulsa College of Law student Dalisha Kirk (2L) is looking forward to the second year of law school. Helping stoke her enthusiasm is a combination of a meaningful summer externship and a first year that exceeded her expectations both of what she could accomplish and the richness of a supportive, student-focused academic community. That first year also convinced Kirk that a career as a lawyer would be the ideal way to act on her ethical and political beliefs and commitment to effecting positive social change.

young woman with long black hair wearing a yellow blazer over a white top smiling while seated indoors
Dalisha Kirk (2L)

With a bachelor’s in criminology from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Kirk made the cross-country journey to Tulsa spurred on by a desire “to help people in some way.”

Kirk’s ambition was deeply influenced by her family, who “encouraged the idea of giving back”; volunteering during her undergraduate years in minority and disadvantaged communities; and the often uneasy reality of being a Black person in contemporary America. “I’ve always thought it would be easier seeing someone who looks like you help you through a legal problem because, more likely than not, they’re going to be able to understand where you’re coming from,” said Kirk. “I want to be that person who helps bridge the gap between people, communities and the law.”

A demanding externship

Between first and second year of law school, Kirk tested her convictions and applied her growing expertise during an externship with The Demand Project, which is based in Jenks, Oklahoma. The mission of this organization is to eradicate human trafficking, online enticement, child abuse imagery and the commercial sexual exploitation of children.

It would not be overstating the case to say that Kirk excelled during her externship, working on a variety of initiatives that drew on her skills and knowledge. These included reviewing the laws dealing with human trafficking and examining how The Demand Project could improve and grow its relationships with federal organizations. Kirk’ biggest undertaking and the one she says she is “most proud” of involved taking a major hand in designing a program to help victims of trafficking maintain their financial credit, which is necessary for such basic things as renting an apartment, applying for a loan and obtaining a mortgage.

Kirk’s work on The Demand Project’s credit initiative was supervised by Shar Agosto, the organization’s legal director and the executive director of its Journey program. “Dalisha was a wonderful addition to our team,” Agosto remarked. “During her externship, she completed a very complicated project that involved creating credit protection for minors under our Access2Identity program. We were so impressed that we submitted her work to the Oklahoma Bar Foundation as part of our application for an IOLTA grant.”

That amazing first year of firsts

The foundation for Kirk’s rewarding externship was the solid experiences she had during her first year at TU Law. From a great start at orientation in August 2021, where she easily met new friends while bonding over stories about the World’s Largest Peanut, to wrapping up second semester at the Barrister’s Ball “dancing the night way,” Kirk had what can only be described as a remarkable year.

young woman with long black hair wearing a yellow blazer over a white blouse with arms crossed while smiling and standing outdoors in front of a water fountainOn the more serious, academic side, highlights for Kirk included studying in TU Law’s Mabee Legal Information Center (MLIC) and competing in the Redbud and Negotiation competitions. “Even though I didn’t place, I’m happy I did them and I had an amazing partner for both,” she remarked. “As someone who is more introverted, it was great to break out of my shell. And the solid feedback I received from the judges is carrying me forward.”

While she describes herself as introverted, Kirk stepped out of her comfort zone and got involved with a number of TU Law’s student organizations, including TU Law Ambassadors, OutLaws, the Immigration Law Society and the Black Law Student Association (BLSA). “Being able to see my community represented through the BLSA was especially impactful for me,” commented Kirk. “Its members became the people I looked up to as well as my mentors. The BLSA is an incredible organization that gives us a voice and lets us know we’re not alone.”

Kirk’s first year, however, was not all smooth sailing. Perhaps the stiffest challenge she faced was balancing coursework and personal time: “I still think that’s something I’m trying to address. Burnout is real!” Another hurdle entailed developing a coherent and effective study style, which involved turning to methods such as flashcards, Quizlet, Quimbee Questions and Law Jeopardy with her friends at the MLIC.

Finally, Kirk acknowledges that learning the Socratic method employed in her courses took a lot of getting used to. “The first time I got called on I was so nervous and completely messed up,” she recalled. “I still fumble now on occasion, but I am improving. And I have to remind myself that it’s easier to remember everything you got wrong in class rather than the things you did right!”

Full of surprises

It’s clear from spending even a little time with Kirk that people matter to her — deeply. Thus, it is heartening to hear that one of the aspects of being a TU Law student that surprised her the most was “the way everyone comes together to help each other.” Study groups, hallway conversations, help arranging an interview: “All you have to do is ask and someone will point you in the right direction,” said Kirk. “You always hear that law school is cutthroat and everyone is competing with everyone else. Maybe some of those things are true some of the time, but for the most part I’ve found that everyone works together in a wonderfully collegial way.”

Another aspect of being a law student that surprised Kirk was that the cases she received in Torts and Criminal Administration became such a highlight of her learning experience: “The fact is that many of those cases are so strange and, oddly, entertaining. I’d never read and dissected a legal case before I came to TU Law, so it never occurred to me before that it would be an interesting thing to do!”

On the more personal side, Kirk’s first year on the road to becoming a lawyer was discovering “how much I want to experience.” Arriving in Tulsa “pretty set” on working in health or criminal law, the 12 months since beginning law school have, she noted, “opened my mind to other avenues. I still want to focus on public policy, but I now regard law school as a ground for nurturing my curiosity.”

A new year beckons

“It will be hard to top my first year,” laughed Kirk. “I made wonderful new friends, attended my first Hallowe’en party and took part in my first Pride festival. There were so many experiences I hope to repeat this year!”

In addition, Kirk intends to deepen her involvement in TU Law’s student organizations. Recently, for instance, she was accepted into the college’s prestigious Energy Law Journal.

And now that she has a much better handle on what being successful at law school entails, Kirk hopes to spend a little more time branching outside into the wider Tulsa community in order to volunteer doing the people- and community-focused work she treasures: “That’s where my passion to become a lawyer started, and so giving back is a major priority for me this year and throughout the rest of my studies and career.”

Knowledge of the law and its practice are powerful tools in the struggle for social justice. A Juris Doctor from TU Law could be your pathway to effecting the change you believe in.


TU Law’s Public Interest Board: Community support and skills-development for future lawyers

As Madison Cataudella (LLM ’19, JD ’19) walked across the Lorton Performance Center stage in December 2019 to receive her LLM and JD degrees, she looked forward to a career as a lawyer at CharneyBrown, but also backward to three enriching years as a law student. At The University of Tulsa College of Law, 18 student organizations give budding lawyers like Cataudella opportunities to gain new knowledge, skills and a network of friends across diverse areas, including animal rights, LGBTQ+ legal matters and Indian law.

It was at law school that Cataudella discovered an interest in oil, gas and environmental issues. The expertise she gained through her studies in these areas will prove useful at Charney Brown, where she will focus on researching and drafting title opinions as well as helping clients prepare submissions to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.

Madison Cataudella
Madison Cataudella (LLM ’19, JD ’19)

Beyond the classroom, Cataudella’s experience as a member of the Public Interest Board (PIB) and other student organizations was instrumental in laying the groundwork for a rewarding legal career.

“Getting involved with TU Law’s student organizations equips one to practice law,” Cataudella noted. In addition to her involvement with PIB, she was active with the Board of Advocates, Women’s Law Caucus, Phi Alpha Delta, the Student Bar Association (SBA) and REELS (Resources, Energy and Environmental Law Society). “With each group you join, you acquire new knowledge and get exposed to fresh ideas. Collectively, you are able to experience facets of life and the law that might normally not be available to you. That can make you a better lawyer because there is a large chance you’ll be advocating for a client with whom you might not have a lot in common. Additionally, being able to learn from others and draw on more than just your own thoughts and experiences can broaden and strengthen your arguments and ideas, especially as a young lawyer.”

Cataudella observed that these organizations provide experience in event planning, contacting and coordinating people, setting up logistics, communicating with students and faculty, planning and handling budgets, and meeting deadlines. “All these skills are so useful out there in the professional world. Not to mention getting accustomed to communicating with people. It is hard to advocate for your client or bring ideas to your firm when you do not know how to speak effectively.”

Public Interest Board: Helping underserved and underrepresented Tulsans

For one of these groups, PIB, creating opportunities for law students to take part in community service and pro bono work is at the heart of its mission. Cataudella joined the board soon after beginning law school, and she served as its president from May through December 2019. “PIB’s goal is to assist the underserved and underrepresented people in Tulsa,” she noted. “We also strive to develop in TU Law students an enduring commitment to the community through forging strong relationships. We help students step outside their comfort zones and realize they can do more.”

Madison Cataudella addresses TU Law students who volunteered to help City Lights Foundation
Madison Cataudella addresses the TU Law students volunteering to help City Lights Foundation (Aug. 2018)

City Lights Foundation of Tulsa is one of the nonprofit organizations PIB members regularly assist. In fact, it is involvement with this nonprofit’s Night Light program that Cataudella credits for finding the inspiration to pursue her own philanthropic drive. After completing a bachelor’s degree in communication at the University of Arkansas, Cataudella returned home to Tulsa. At the urging of her step-father, she joined him at one of Night Light’s Thursday evening gatherings beneath an Interstate 244 overpass in West Tulsa.

“I started volunteering with Night Light in January 2016 and I’ve never stopped going back,” Cataudella remarked. “Almost every Thursday since then I’ve been under the bridge with an incredible group of people who all have a servant’s heart for our community. This hands-on experience transformed my desire to help people into a real passion.”

Tyler Parette, a program manager with City Lights Foundation, observed that “Madison’s tenure as a volunteer staff member of Night Light Tulsa left a profound impact on our guests and volunteers. We are grateful for her dedication to those we serve, and we are confident in her ability and drive to advocate for those who find themselves in the margins.

“More broadly, the service of TU Law’s PIB has provided for the direct needs of our guests, and it is our sincere hope that PIB members will serve the interests of those experiencing homelessness for the remainder of their careers. Systemic change requires all of us, and we’re happy that the PIB is part of our growing community.”

PIB’s extensive and varied community service

Throughout the year, each of PIB’s directors selects an external organization or cause to support. “We always start with our directors’ passions,” Cataudella said. “We ask them: what comes to mind when you think of community service?”

Some PIB projects carry over from year to year, while new ones regularly arise. As an example of the latter, on Indigenous Peoples Day in fall 2019, PIB members went to Tulsa’s Guthrie Green to volunteer with local Native American groups. That opportunity was sparked by Julie Combs, a PIB director who is also the president of TU Law’s Native American Law Student Association.

TU Law students at the 2019 Expungement Expo
TU Law students who volunteered at the Expungement Expo (Nov. 2019)

In recent years, other PIB efforts have included helping at Tulsa’s annual Expungement Expo and traveling to a local elementary or middle school on Constitution Day to educate youngsters about the origins of the United States and its foundational laws. December 2019 saw the group partner with the SBA on its first Angel Tree. This entailed members buying and wrapping 150 gifts for children in need.

Foundations of Legal Study students volunteering at Women in Recovery in August 2019
TU Law students volunteering at Women in Recovery (Aug. 2019)

One of PIB’s annual signature initiatives is organizing the incoming law students’ service day, which is part of TU Law’s Foundations of Legal Study orientation. In August 2019, this encompassed five placements across the city, including the John 3:16 Mission, Women in Recovery and the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma.

Beyond Opioid Litigation

In December 2019, PIB charted new waters for the group and the College of Law by convening the Beyond Opioid Litigation panel. Organized by Cataudella and Combs, this multi-stakeholder education and networking event brought together medical staff, attorneys, courthouse clerks, judges and people who had personal experience with opioid litigation and how their own or family members’ lives have been affected.

The creation of this unique symposium entailed a partnership between PIB and Tulsa County District Court Judge Linda Morrissey and local attorney Joel Wohlgemuth. “Madison and Julie were instrumental in generating interest at the law school and throughout the community,” noted Judge Morrissey. “They worked diligently with Joel and me to plan the event, and on the day, there was an overflow crowd of community leaders, judges, attorneys and students.”

Beyond Opioid Litigation: Judge Morrissey introduces the symposium and panel
Beyond Opioid Litigation: Judge Morrissey introduces the symposium and panel (Dec. 2019)

Wohlgemuth added, “The PIB board really broke ground from the standpoint of format and substance. The event was led by a panel of true experts from the judiciary, medical profession and the bar, and it remains a matter of discussion in and outside of the College of Law. This was a step well beyond other symposia and it established a strong precedent for future PIB projects.”

“This panel was one of the most significant achievements of my career because of the grassroots approach to educating those on the front lines with knowledge to reduce and, hopefully, eliminate opioid addiction in Oklahoma,” remarked Morrissey. Noting that the program’s success was largely attributable to Cataudella and Combs’ leadership, she concluded: “The legal community is fortunate to have these two young women in our ranks.”


Do you have a commitment to community well-being and want to earn your JD from a Top 100 law school? Then consider applying to The University of Tulsa College of Law, where you will receive a high-quality education and be able to get involved in a wide variety of student organizations.

TU Law student awarded prestigious diversity scholarship

Earlier this summer, Gavin Burl – a rising second-year student at The University of Tulsa College of Law – received the good news that he had been awarded a Diversity Scholars Program scholarship from the law firm Crowe & Dunlevy. Each year, Crowe & Dunlevy presents this major honor to a TU Law candidate based on “academic achievement, financial need and commitment to the law.”

Still carrying a glow from his recent study-abroad month at University College Dublin, Burl spoke passionately about the difference this scholarship will make to him: “I am thankful to Crowe & Dunlevy for giving me this opportunity to move forward in law school with less of a financial burden. It’s lifted that burden to where I can think more clearly. It makes things easier for myself and for my family, and now I can focus on being the best law student I can be.”

“Promoting diversity is important to our firm and the legal community as a whole,” said Susan E. Huntsman, a director at Crowe & Dunlevy and a member of the firm’s Diversity Committee. “Helping aspiring attorneys from a variety of backgrounds reach their educational goals strengthens our firm, our profession and our state. Gavin joins other outstanding students who have received this scholarship since our Diversity Scholars Program began at The University of Tulsa College of Law in 2011. Many of these students have gone on to be leaders in our state and beyond. Gavin’s demonstrated leadership and academic achievement are to be commended.”

A stormy start

Today, Burl is a thoughtful young man with a clear vision of the direction he wants to take with his education and in his career. That clarity, however, masks the struggle and hard work required to get him to his present state.

At age 8, Burl’s world literally was swept out from under him. Born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, Burl was one of the many thousands of people in that city who endured the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall on the Gulf Coast Aug. 29, 2005. Like so many other residents of the Big Easy, Burl and his family were forced to flee Louisiana with all of their belongings stuffed into a single SUV.

After three months living in a hotel, the Burls ultimately settled in a suburb of Dallas. After high school, Burl then moved to Ada, Oklahoma, to attend East Central University. There, he played on the Tigers football team and completed a bachelor of science degree in political science. During his junior year, he went on a class trip to visit TU Law and, almost immediately, knew he had found his next academic home.

Law school: “It allows you to grow.”

One of the things that has impressed Burl the most about student life at TU law is how surviving the “hardships” and “challenges” of first year “allows you to grow in a way that most other experiences can’t provide.” Burl was, indeed, struck by his previously unknown capacity during his first year to rise to the challenge of competing – and taking second place – in the Board of Advocates Negotiation Competition. Now, about to enter his second year at TU Law, one of the activities Burl is most looking forward to is contributing to the Energy Law Journal.

“Gavin’s background and experience make him a valuable addition to our law community,” said TU Law’s Associate Dean for Student Affairs Karen Grundy. “A rising second-year student, Gavin has already demonstrated promise for a highly impactful legal career. We are so pleased that he has been recognized as a Crowe & Dunlevy Diversity Scholar, and we are profoundly grateful to Crowe & Dunlevy for their continuing support of our students.”

Service and diversity

When asked why he chose to study the law, Burl replied, “I’ve always wanted to serve the people – in any capacity. Yet, where I’m from, you’re often taught that the only way you can make it is through athletics. People who look like me, we’re not really exposed to professions like law.”

As an undergraduate, however, Burl was exposed to legal studies. He quickly discovered a passion for the subject, and “before I knew it, I found myself interested in learning just how under-represented minorities are in all forms of employment in the legal system. From there it felt like it was my duty to go into that field and serve.

“The system ought to reflect the diversity of this country. I believe that diversity is imperative in every area of every profession. The root of all conflict in society is lack of diversity, and when there’s lack of diversity there’s lack of communication between different ethnicities, and when there’s lack of communication between different ethnicities there’s unfamiliarity. So many types of issues can arise from just not knowing your brothers or your sisters of different colors.”

Looking to the future

Burl’s ethic of service permeates the vision for his future career: “In what way can I serve my community? How can I influence my community in a positive way?” At present, Burl sees municipal law and sustainable energy and natural resources law as two of the fields that would provide him with the most ample opportunities to accomplish his goals. “Those areas demand so much cooperation and so much communication with others,” Burl observed. “And that’s what I think legal work should be about.”


Exploring paths to make a positive impact in your community? Consider a career as a lawyer by earning a JD through TU Law.