Coelho Center Helps LMU Undergrad Map Future As Advocate on Disability Issues

Vejas Vasiliauskas with Katherine Perez and Tony Coelho
From left: The Coelho Center Director Katherine Perez, Fellow Vejas Vasiliauskas and Founder Hon. Tony Coelho

For LMU student Vejas Vasiliauskas, working as an intern with The Coelho Center for Disability Law, Policy & Innovation at LMU Loyola Law School was particularly fulfilling when he helped put together the center’s inaugural Law Fellowship Program last summer. That’s because not only was he able to assist people applying for fellowships, he became one of the fellows himself.

“It was really great to be able to work on something and then see it happen,” Vasiliauskas said.

The Coelho Fellowship is a primary component of The Coelho Center, a year-old interdisciplinary project dedicated to increasing the pipeline of lawyers and politicians with disabilities. The weeklong intensive program included sessions on being accepted into and succeeding in law school, complete with a simulated law class; workshops on resume and interview preparation; a courthouse visit; and lectures and panel discussions with a wide range of experts. A key message, Vasiliauskas said, was that students with disabilities are responsible to educate schools about their needs.

The fellows were competitively selected from across the country. To be eligible, prospective fellows had to identify as disabled and be interested in law school. In addition, they had to express willingness to be leaders in breaking down barriers for people with disabilities. The selected 15 fellows met those conditions -- and more -- hailing from as nearby as Los Angeles and as far away as Pennsylvania.

Fellowship highlights included a roundtable discussion on disability-rights issues moderated by House Majority Whip Tony Coelho (LMU ’64), architect of the Americans With Disabilities Act and founder of The Coelho Center. Panelists included U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu, U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb and Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda L. Solis. Elsewhere, The Coelho Center fellows learned from the leaders from prominent disability and legal organizations. The 13 fellows were competitively selected from across the U.S. for their interest in pursuing careers in law, politics or other forms of advocacy on behalf of those with disabilities.

While The Coelho Center is housed at Loyola Law School, it draws on expertise and resources from all seven of LMU’s colleges. Vasiliauskas himself is one such resource. He is a senior English major at LMU’s main campus in Westchester, who is still considering whether to go to law school. He has been blind since birth.

After joining the center in May, one of Vasiliauskas’ first tasks was to sit in on a roundtable of special-education experts examining disability and race issues and then to transcribe a recording of the session. Since then, he has researched some topics for Pérez to write about on her blog and done some writing himself.

“I felt pretty involved in the center,” he said. “We talked a lot about how law school is possible for everyone,” he said. “We also learned that you don’t have to go to law school to be involved in disability rights. You can still be very involved with an organization or on your own.”

With the start of the new school year, the foundation fellows continue to participate in a monthly class, available online, in which guest speakers discuss aspects of disability law. In addition, each fellow will be mentored by a lawyer and a law student who have disabilities. The fellows also will receive academic support and a $1,000 stipend.

Vasiliauskas is staying on this fall as an intern research assistant with The Coelho Center. He is helping Pérez with an upcoming conference and other administrative tasks, splitting his time between the law school’s downtown L.A. campus and the LMU Westchester campus.

In addition to finishing his degree at LMU, Vasiliauskas also expects to continue as a writer or editor for the campus newspaper. What comes after that, he hasn’t decided. He said he might take some time off school for a while to become a paralegal before then going to law school. Or he might pursue a career as a rehabilitation counselor supporting people with disabilities.

Either way, Vasiliauskas is happy about working at The Coelho Center. “This is my first job off campus, and it really has helped me build confidence,” he said.