LAW’s Sarah Sherman-Stokes: 2020 Metcalf Cup and Prize for Excellence in Teaching
Students describe the associate professor as inspiring, thoughtful, amazing
Sarah Sherman-Stokes teaches students how to be immigration lawyers by being immigration lawyers. They represent immigrants in court under her supervision. They visit detained clients in jail. And when there is an immigration crisis, they jump in. In 2018, when migrant children were being forcibly separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border, Sherman-Stokes took her students to Arizona to advise families of their rights. Her students went to Tijuana to help refugees who were traveling in a caravan from Central America and being demonized by the Trump administration.
“It’s important for students to know that lawyers have to show up when there is something we don’t agree with,” says Sherman-Stokes, a BU School of Law clinical associate professor of law and associate director of LAW’s Immigrants’ Rights & Human Trafficking Program. “We should be there and we should get in the way and we should bear witness to what’s happening and try to do good. A law degree is a very powerful tool. The goal is to use that tool to do good.
“My pedagogy,” she says, “aims to tackle social injustice at the macro level.”
Sherman-Stokes’ teaching—and action—has helped win national recognition for BU’s immigration law program. It is the kind of teaching that students say transforms their lives, inspiring many of them to be public-interest lawyers intent on making a difference.
“Sarah shows us that it’s always important to see clients as full people,” says Silvia Mavares (LAW’21). “It’s the same way she treats students. She always makes time for us to be human. I’ve never been in another law school class that emphasizes the humanity of clients the way Sarah does. That’s why she’s so successful and why we love her so much.”
It’s also part of what led the Faculty Teaching Awards Committee judges to award Sherman-Stokes 2020’s Metcalf Cup and Prize for Excellence in Teaching, to be presented at BU’s 147th All-University Commencement this Sunday, October 3. The ceremony for the Class of 2020 was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which closed campus in March 2020. Committee members who observed Sherman-Stokes’ teaching said they were “in awe.” In her letter recommending Sherman-Stokes for the Metcalf, Angela Onwuachi-Willig, dean of LAW, cited her “grace in intellectually challenging and emotionally grueling immigration work.”
”Not only is Sarah an exceptional attorney and an unwavering advocate for immigrants’ rights, she is also a beloved mentor to the students in her clinic,” Onwuachi-Willig says. “I particularly appreciate Sarah’s relentlessly positive attitude and can-do spirit.”
Sherman-Stokes credits Onwuachi-Willig, as well as Julie Dahlstrom, a clinical associate professor of law and director of the Immigrants’ Rights & Human Trafficking Program, and a long list of other colleagues as her own teachers. “I feel like there’s so much to learn,” she says. “Legal education is constantly changing. We’re constantly becoming better at what we’re doing. We’ve come a long way when it comes to cross-cultural humility, antiracism education, the ways in which we recognize our students’ lived experience, and the ways in which we help to amplify our clients’ voices.”
“Sarah encourages her students not only to become model attorneys, but to become critical thinkers and leaders,” Dahlstrom says. “And the students rise to this challenge. We need more teachers and lawyers like Sarah.”
Student evaluations of Sherman-Stokes routinely include words like “inspiring,” “thoughtful,” and “amazing.” One student wrote that Sherman-Stokes’ “willingness to always give us her all makes us want to be the best students we can.” Mavares and other students marvel at how Sherman-Stokes, who is the single mother of two young sons, manages to be almost always available for them—and not just during regular school hours, but at 1 am and on the weekends, when they’re racing to finish a brief for court and need feedback.
Mavares has the same question as a lot of other students: “Does Sarah sleep?”
In the fall semester Immigrants’ Rights & Human Trafficking Program seminar Core Lawyering Skills, which she and Dahlstrom coteach, Sherman-Stokes asks her students to reflect on questions like these: “What do I really believe in? What kind of person do I want to be? What kind of lawyer do I want to be?”
By the end of the 2018 seminar, Briana Cardwell (LAW’20) had arrived at this answer: “I want to be a lawyer like Sarah.” Cardwell has since landed a job as a lawyer handling immigration work with Community Legal Aid in Worcester.
Ornella Ngounou (LAW’21) helped represent clients from Guatemala and Haiti under Sherman-Stokes’ supervision last year. “I’m an immigrant myself,” says Ngounou, whose family is from Cameroon. “As a woman of color, I kind of had this imposter syndrome. Sarah helped me see those things that other people might label as “different” as strengths that could propel me to becoming the best lawyer I can be. She helped me find my voice as an attorney.”
One way Sherman-Stokes bolsters her students’ confidence is by encouraging them to solve problems themselves as they build their clients’ cases. At first, Mavares says, the responsibility felt overwhelming. “I told Sarah I was even terrified to make phone calls to my clients,” she says. “She has a very nondirective approach. We’re coming to her, we have a deadline to turn something in for court, we’d say, ‘We don’t know what to do here.’ Sarah would always say, ‘What do you think?’ ‘Where do you think you would find that?’”
Sherman-Stokes plans to use half of her $10,000 Metcalf honorarium to establish the Immigrant Justice Public Interest Fund at the School of Law; she has committed to contributing an additional $5,000 over five years. The fund, which others are invited to contribute to, will support first-generation LAW students so they can take unpaid summer internships doing immigrants’ rights work through LAW’s Public Interest Project.
“I’m so grateful to be able to use this award to pay it forward to first-generation students who, because of financial barriers, would be otherwise unable to devote their incredible talents to public interest law,” she says. “In this particular political moment, and especially in the field of immigrants’ rights, we need smart, committed, creative lawyers more than ever. I hope to use this fund to support them, advance them, and cheer them on.”
Sherman-Stokes’ scholarship explores the intersections of immigration law and mental health, as well as the interactions between immigration and the criminal justice system. She earned a BA from Bates College, where she majored in Latin America studies, and during study abroad in Central America, began listening to migration stories.
After graduating from Bates, she moved to Washington and got a job at independent bookstore Politics and Prose. Fluent in Spanish, she volunteered as an interpreter for the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights (CAIR) Coalition. ”I would spend many days waking up at 5 am and driving to southeastern Virginia to go to jails and work with immigrant detainees,” she says. “I was so moved and compelled by it. I thought if I kept showing up, they’d hire me. I got a job as a paralegal at CAIR. It was great to go to these facilities and support immigrants. But I thought I could do more. I thought I could go to law school and get this cool tool for helping people get out of jail.”
She graduated with a Juris Doctor from Boston College Law School in 2011, then spent two years as an Equal Justice Works Fellow representing immigrant detainees at the Political Asylum/Immigration Representation (PAIR) Project. In 2013 BU invited her to apply for a one-year teaching fellowship at the law school.
“I had guest-lectured in a couple of classes at BC and Roger Williams,” she says. “I loved it. I thought, wow, this could be a dream position.”
That BU fellowship turned into her dream job two years later when she was hired full-time.
A gift from the late Arthur G. B. Metcalf (Wheelock’35, Hon.’74), a BU Board of Trustees chair emeritus and former professor, funds the Metcalf Cup and Prize and the Metcalf Awards for Excellence in Teaching, created in 1973 and presented at Commencement. The Cup and Prize winner receives $10,000, and the Award winners receive $5,000 each. A University committee selects winners based on statements of nominees’ teaching philosophy, supporting letters from colleagues and students, and classroom observations of the nominees.
The winners of 2020’s Metcalf Awards for Excellence in Teaching are Courtney Goto, a School of Theology associate professor of religious education, and Seth Blumenthal, a College of Arts senior lecturer in the Writing Program.
Find more information about Commencement on the Commencement website.