“There is so much to learn from people going through hard times, and there is so much to learn from being there to help them,” said Tomás Alvarez-Perez ’22, who spent the summer working remotely for the Richmond (Va.) Public Defender’s Office as an intern through the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty (SHECP).
SHECP is a collaboration among 26 colleges and universities to integrate classroom study of poverty with internships and co-curricular activities. It facilitates finding internships based on interests, puts together discussion groups of students doing similar work, and organizes talks for the students. The Levitt Center and COOP fund and help administer the SHECP internships.
Alvarez-Perez’s work exposed him to various aspects of the judicial system. His duties included writing record synopses, communicating with nonprofit organizations, researching the effects of long-term incarceration, translating documents into Spanish, and speaking with clients’ relatives to further develop client cases. As a public defense intern, he helped build legal cases for those who do not have the resources to otherwise do so.
Majors: Economics, Hispanic Studies
Hometown: Miami, Fla.
High school: School for Advanced Studies, Homestead, Fla.
Alvarez-Perez’s interest in law and public service stems from reflections on his youth and those around him. “I’m Cuban, and I came from Cuba when I was 13,” he said. “I visited two years ago, for the first time in five years, and saw a lot of poverty. I was very overwhelmed by it. I was left thinking what could I do and how could I prepare myself to eventually one day go back and help people, and I think SHECP was a really good opportunity for me to start that journey.”
Through both the Public Defender’s Office and SHECP’s programming, Alvarez-Perez has met other public defenders, nonprofit workers, police officers, prosecutors, and judges. “You definitely got to see the whole side of the story and how everyone got to interact with each other in Richmond,” he said.
Alvarez-Perez helped represent a variety of clients, from protesters tearing down Confederate statues in Virginia to a white supremacist. Most recently, he worked on a case involving an immigrant family and their son, translating information and getting to know their history and current situation. “It’s very inspiring, and it’s a very good learning experience,” he said.
The past few months revealed to Alvarez-Perez the extent to which many clients facing charges also struggle with untreated conditions. He noted that often clients come in with histories of childhood trauma or mental illness but have never received support. In addition, numerous people grapple with opioid addiction and look to the Public Defender’s Office for aid. “[The job] was very eye-opening because the general perspective of people who commit crimes is ‘Oh, it’s their responsibility,’ ... but really it was people like you or me.”
Alvarez-Perez has spent the summer learning from those he aims to help. And though he is still considering how he plans to contribute to the world post-Hamilton, he feels even more committed to assisting impoverished communities and doing the necessary social work to empower those around him.