Jaden Balsman ’22 is a political science and minority studies double-major and a pre-law minor with a set goal: to become a civil rights and criminal justice attorney focused on helping minority communities get fair and proper legal representation. And she is on the path to achieving her target.
Last semester, Balsman participated in the Windy City Moot Court Regional, sanctioned by the American Moot Court Association and sponsored by Loyola Chicago University, where she placed eighth among the top orators. In total, there were 52 competing students from universities across the country, including Yale University, Duke University, University of Pennsylvania and University of Chicago.
Moot court is a simulation of an appellate argument in which students must present their case before a panel of judges who question the students about the facts and law of their case. Mount students have been competing in California moot court competitions since the first team was assembled in 2008 by Helen Boutrous, PhD, JD, associate professor and pre-law director of the history and political science department. But last semester, the Mount team was able to participate in other regional competitions across the country due to their virtual formats.
“Jaden is so talented, and she has such a natural gift in terms of her presentation,” says Boutrous, who is affectionately referred to as “Dr. B” by her students. ”She is confident, she can think very quickly on her feet, and she handles the pressure and the judges with such graciousness.”
As she embarks on the spring semester, Balsman is completing her junior year while already preparing to compete in the next moot court in a few months, while she studies for the LSAT, which she’ll take over the summer. She discusses her first-hand experiences of racism and discrimination as an African American woman have motivated her to fight for social justice.
What did the experience of competing at moot court mean to you, both academically and personally?
The experience of competing in moot court meant so much to me. I truly valued every second of the entire process, from the prep work to the actual competition. This was the first experience that I had that felt like I was an actual lawyer, and it solidified my decision that I 110% want to pursue a career as a civil rights attorney.
Could you explain the preparation process leading to the competition?
There was a lot of prep work that went into competition. The entire moot court course offered by the Mount is designed around a legal case, and that same legal case is what is used to argue in competition. So technically, we had started prepping from the very first day of the fall 2020 semester. However, I would say that the real after-hours intense prep started two to three months before competition. We would meet usually 2-3 times a week for 2-4 hours a day with Dr. B and Mount alumna Melanie Sava, who mentored me. Melanie was so helpful during the entire process; she recently graduated from Yale Law School and that was very inspiring to me. She also competed at moot court when she was a student at the Mount and she won No. 1 speaker at the time that she competed.
The practices were pretty repetitive, but that’s what makes for a good argument; feeling 100% confident in what you’re going to say in front of the judges.
How did you feel after you found out that you placed eighth among the orators?
When I found out that I won eighth top speaker award, it really was so rewarding. I had never had that kind of validation in my academics before, simply because I was never super passionate about what I was studying before transitioning to pre-law. I had gone into competition with a goal — as I am a very competitive person — and that goal was to beat the team from Yale. I know it sounds funny, but it was just something I had told myself I wanted to do. And sure enough, I did! The two students from Yale placed ninth and 10th on the top speaker list, and I placed eighth.
Were you nervous during the competition?
I was never nervous during competition, but I was anxious about how the dynamic of the entire competition would be. This was everyone’s first time partaking in a virtual competition setting and so I was anxious to see how it was set up. It is rare for me to get nervous in situations. I also think being in the comfort of my own home was helpful too.
How did Professor Boutrous push you to succeed in the competition?
Without Dr. B, none of this ever could have happened. I made the decision to compete very last minute, and I am so happy that I did. She really is the driving force for the pre-law program as a whole. She inspires students to pursue what they want and be successful at it as well. Everything that Dr. B says I listen to and apply it to my life in some form. I find myself constantly thinking, “What would Dr. B. do?”
What are your career goals after you finish school?
I want to be a civil rights and criminal justice attorney after I graduate school. I want to focus a lot of my energy on helping minority communities get fair and proper legal advice and services because this has been something that has not always been easily accessible.
Being an African American woman, I have experienced discrimination and racism myself, and I feel I have a duty to help those who have had similar experiences get justice. I fight for justice every day and will continue to do so for many years to come. I experienced a lot of volatile racism and discrimination throughout high school and my freshman year of community college in a different city, as I went to schools that were predominantly white. After enduring those things, it opened my eyes to this world of systemic racism that is so intertwined into the fabric of our nation. I just felt so drawn to doing something about it and felt as if it was my calling to be a black woman who can work in a white, male-dominated field and be successful at it. This competition validated my feelings 100%.
Could you share some of your first-hand experiences with racism and discrimination?
My experiences of racism were more prevalent throughout my high school years. I had a best friend at the time who would only refer to me as the N-word instead of by my first name. I had dance team coaches who would make comments about my hair. I could go on and on. These experiences really sat inside of me for so many years because there wasn’t really anyone I could talk to because all my friends were white. I just let the experiences sit and fester inside of me, until the one day I just woke up and felt so drawn to doing something about it and also making sure that everyone else knew that I was now finally conscious and fully aware of the blatant racism that was happening to me and that it would no longer be okay.
How have the recent movements and protests for social and racial justice across the country impacted you?
I protested nearly every day for eight weeks after George Floyd passed. Balancing this and my education was not easy, but that didn’t matter to me in the slightest. What mattered was that I was alive and I still had my voice. I was going to use it. There was no down time for me. Being around so many other individuals at protests who felt the same way as me was so inspiring and motivating. It made me realize that there actually are people who want to change this world for the better and who do stand with me and the rest of the black community. That was one of the most heartwarming feelings I’ve had.
How has the Mount Community supported you in your journey to become an attorney and to fight for social and racial justice?
Being at the Mount has been the most amazing experience. A lot of universities across this country think that racism is a touchy topic when in fact it’s not. It’s a necessary topic that must be talked about in order for some sort of change to ensue. I have watched numerous universities sit back and act like this movement will pass and lose its momentum, when that is not the case. The Mount never did that. It addressed everything head on and were very transparent about the fact that racism is an issue and one that will not be tolerated. This made me feel incredibly comfortable and pushed me to be better.