The Legal Beat
This Western State Law Student Has Experienced A ‘Double Whammy’
Posted on Thursday March 14, 2019
When Jamila Ha and her fellow Western State College of Law at Argosy University students realized in January they had not received their federal financial aid, Ha said she immediately thought, “Oh my goodness, here we go again.”
The news sparked that sense of dread because Ha was a first-year student at another Orange County institution, Whittier Law School, when it announced in April 2017 it would be closing in the coming years amid a sharp decline in enrollment and graduates’ poor performance on the California bar exam.
Ha’s instincts about what was to come at Western State in Irvine were correct. In recent weeks, the school has been officially cut off from the federal student loan program and is in danger of a mid-semester closure amid the company that owns the school being in federal receivership.
While Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa told all of its students they could finish their degrees if they desired, those at Western State may not get the same chance.
Ha, a third-year student, said she and a good friend who also transferred from Whittier to Western State have recently discussed, only half-jokingly, whether they should have left their previous school.
“When we take a step back and think about all that we’ve been through, it’s kind of like, ‘Man, now we really wished we stayed at Whittier. We shouldn’t have been so hasty to get out,’” Ha said.
“This situation is causing way more harm than Whittier has to any of us,” she continued. “It would be ideal for us just to have the security of graduation.”
Some of Ha’s classmates who transferred from Whittier have even in recent weeks contacted their former school about the possibility of coming back to finish their studies, said Rudy Hasl, Whittier’s interim dean.
While returning to the school mid-semester would not be feasible, he said, some students could potentially transfer back for future semesters. Hasl said he is reviewing whether that would be possible, with the federal financial aid piece of the equation a key issue to be worked out.
“It is a highly volatile situation,” Hasl said. “I hope to be able to have a resolution on our side within a couple of weeks.”
Western State reported to the American Bar Association that 22 of the 26 students who transferred in during the 2016-2017 academic year came from Whittier.
Hasl said the former Whittier students still at Western State have experienced “a double whammy.”
“When they transferred to Western State, they assumed they were now safe and would be able to graduate,” he said. “They did not anticipate the type of problems Western State has encountered.”
Ha, who is 26, started at Western State in August 2017 as a 2L. She said those like her who transferred to the school from Whittier were initially very excited because of its solid reputation in Orange County and its strong support of public interest work.
In addition to her studies, Ha continued clerking at the Orange County District Attorney’s office to help pursue her goal of becoming a prosecutor.
She said students developed some initial fears about Western State’s future when news spread on campus that Argosy’s chain of for-profit schools, including Western State, had been purchased by Dream Center Education Holdings in 2017.
However, Ha said the real dismay set in for many in early 2019 when students did not receive their financial aid.
Having previously experienced the closure announcement at Whittier, Ha initially encouraged what she called “Western natives” to try to remain calm and gather more information.
“Trust me, this is nothing yet,” she remembers telling her peers. “Don’t freak out.”
But as the emails from the school’s leadership continued to offer bleak news and the school’s parent company entered federal receivership, Ha said panic began to set in.
She was able to get a brief respite from the saga earlier this month by taking a short spring break trip to Cabo San Lucas with her mom. They went jet skiing and spent plenty of time by the ocean.
The day she returned to California, she and her good friend at Western State who also transferred from Whittier signed up to take the July 2019 California bar exam at the same location.
Any positive feelings she felt faded soon after due to a March 7 email from Western State’s dean informing students the school could only commit to holding classes through March 22.
While other Argosy schools closed March 8, the email said the two-week window would give the law school a chance to possibly find a buyer. It would also provide time for the school to work on plans to help its students scheduled to graduate in May do so and still be able to take the July bar exam.
Ha said the news left her feeling very angry, but unsure what to do.
“Do I scream?” Ha said. “Do I cry? Do I yell? Do I start laughing because this is so freaking ridiculous? What is actually going to release this feeling of fear that we have?”
“Every therapy session I’ve gone to in the last two months has been about the school,” she added, noting what happened at Whittier played a major role in her seeking therapy in the first place.
For Ha and others at Western State, focusing in classes has been difficult as well. During a recent bar preparation course, Ha said students were texting trying to find out what was happening at a hearing regarding the parent company’s receivership.
Ha said at this point, she and other third-year students hope a plan can be worked out so they receive credit for their final-semester classes currently scheduled to conclude on March 22. That would allow the students to graduate and take the July bar exam.
State Bar of California spokesman Jonah Lamb said the agency is “paying close attention to the status of the Western State College of Law and its students.”
“The school’s direct accreditors are working to assist the students with options in a quickly changing landscape,” Lamb wrote in an email. “The State Bar is paying attention to help ensure that eligible J.D. graduates who wish to take the Bar Examination in July may do so.”
Ha said she does not want to have to wait until a later date to take the bar exam.
But even after all the trauma she has experienced at two different Orange County law schools, Ha has not been dissuaded from pursuing her ultimate goal of becoming a prosecutor.
“I’ll get there even if it takes a while,” she said.
Lyle Moran is a freelance writer in San Diego who handles both journalism and content writing projects. He previously reported for the Los Angeles Daily Journal, San Diego Daily Transcript, Associated Press, and Lowell Sun. He can be reached at [email protected].