By: Greg Goujon
Spring semester was going so well. It was March, spring break was right around the corner, and I really felt like I was finally getting ahold of my first year of law school at University at Buffalo School of Law. Those feelings didn’t last too long, though. One afternoon, after picking up an item from Best Buy through their new drive-thru COVID-19 protocol, my dad reached out to let me know that my mom was going to begin hospice treatment. Initially, admittedly, I was shocked. “Hospice treatment is for those facing the end of their life,” I thought. I knew my mom had early-onset dementia and was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but how did we get here so quickly? I always assumed we could stretch her life out. That might have been the case if our country wasn’t facing such a debilitating pandemic, but that’s not the case.
Well, with the intense concerns over COVID-19 in March, moving my mom to an assisted care facility was no longer an option. Stories of individuals contracting COVID-19, limited visitation capability, and the fear of her dying alone in a facility forced my father into making the decision to keep her at home. I told my dad that my wife, Sarah, and I will be on the next flight down to be with him in support (they were in Florida). Turns out that flights were extremely limited, travel restrictions were high, and my father, being older himself, was cautious with having any visitors to his home (keep in mind this is March and everyone was in full-blown quarantine mode). My wife and I never made it down. I did manage to FaceTime with my mom while she rested in bed. Seeing her emaciated face and body was necessary, in the sense that it put me face to face with how vicious Alzheimer’s can be. For me, my mom was always the energetic force behind our family: high energy, loud laugh (probably where I get mine from), and infectious kindness. To see her in that state was very difficult. A week later she passed away at home, with my dad by her side.
There was no service, nor a wake. No chance for family to hang together. No chance to grieve together. Thankfully, the UB community, my wife’s family, and my new “family” of friends from the law school provided every bit of support I needed. I even received a personally written letter of support from Dean Aviva Abramosvsky. With the grading system switched over to satisfactory/unsatisfactory I told myself just to get through it. Professors were accommodating, teaching assistants were stellar, and my classmates helped me study so I could get through finals.
Weighing on my mind, like every 1L, was the question of how I was going to spend my 1L summer. Internships were getting cancelled left and right. Mine was no different. In a panic I reached out to Marc Davies at our Career Services Office. Through discussions prior, Marc knew about my mom and her Alzheimer’s. So, when we spoke, he immediately suggested I look into the Center for Elder Law and Justice (CELJ). A couple weeks later, after a few phone calls and a couple quick emails, I was on the phone with the hiring direct at CELJ. Not only that but Marc had also, with the help of Vice Dean for Career Services Lisa Patterson, managed to secure me a fellowship to help cover some living expenses over the summer.
Starting the internship, for me, meant that I had a renewed purpose. It was a chance for me to move on from the spring semester. Fortunately, I landed an internship at a place that does the type of work that my mom held so dear to her heart. She spent her whole life in service of others. In elementary school she volunteered for every fundraiser there was to support the school. She went on field trips. She helped my peers whenever they needed anything. In middle school she continued to do more of the same. She sold the coveted soda and candy every middle schooler runs off of at the school dances. High School, ok I won’t lie she backed off a bit because, well, I was in high school (“give me a break, Mom”). All of this in addition to the full-time career she had built for herself. Nothing changed as she entered into retirement and moved to Florida. She began knitting hats and gloves for preemie babies. She sponsored drives within her residential community to stuff backpacks to give to students for back-to-school. I’ve always wondered in amazement how the hell she found the time. She found it because it had always been her purpose in life, her “why.”
While working at the Center for Elder Law and Justice, when making client phone calls, I can’t help but hear my mom in some of their voices. Given that our typical client is older, there’s always a bit of making sure that a potential client has the capacity to speak with us and make decisions. I can’t help but reflexively think back to the conversations I had with my mom when she was dealing with her own dementia. Thankfully, in my position with CELJ I am empowered to do more and to help others who may be facing the same challenges that my own family faced a few months prior.
Finding your “why,” a concept championed by Simon Sinek, is about digging into your deeper motivations that help guide you through difficult times so that they can eventually lead you to greater self-fulfillment and success. During your first year of law school you’ll get asked, a lot, “so, what kind of law do you want to study?” I never really had an answer to that question. The joke being, “the kind of law that makes money.” What I do know is that I always want to be an advocate for my client while keeping my honesty and integrity. I will always use my legal expertise and experience in a way that does good and will help others. So, although I do not know, yet, what area of law I’m interested in, I do know why I chose to pursue a career in the legal profession to begin with. I believe that it’s the latter that will carry me further in life. I can thank my mom for my “why.”
The staff at CELJ are especially attuned to these tenets. Their goal is to protect the essentials of life by providing free civil legal services to seniors, people with disabilities, and low-income populations in nine Western New York counties. Being the first member in my family to attend law school, I have already committed to family and friends that I will offer any support that I can. Spending my summer with CELJ as a recipient of the Blanche Gische & Helen Schurkman Fellowship has made my “why” abundantly clear, ut prosim. (Can’t do a law school blog post without some Latin, right?) With the support of the fellowship I was able to spend my summer with an amazing organization that is doing really “good” legal work while also being able to keep my peace of mind. Not only that, but I rediscovered my “why.” I could not have asked for a better 1L summer experience.
If my mom was still here with sound mind, I think she would be proud of how I ended up.
Thank you to the Career Services Office, the Clinical Legal Education Program, my supervising attorney Sarah Duval, paralegal (and future UB 1L) Steve Dahlberg, the Blanche Gische & Helen Schurkman Fellowship, and my amazing classmates at the University at Buffalo School of Law . Can’t wait to start my second year!
Interest in spending your summer with CELJ? Let me know: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Name: Greg Goujon, ‘22
Name of Fellowship: Blanche Gische & Helen Schurkman Fellowship Award for Elder Justice Award
Place of Internship: Center for Elder Law and Justice, Elder Abuse Unit
Location: Buffalo, New York
One important lesson I have learned from this fellowship: “Enjoy the experience. Ask questions. This is your chance to own the fact that you don’t really know much. Use that as your way to start conversations about topics of interest and go from there. By the end of it, reflect and discover your motivations. You are just getting started!”