Villanova University has announced a new online program through the University’s College of Professional Studies. Villanova Interdisciplinary Immigration Studies Training for Advocates (VIISTA) aims to educate advocates who wish to serve migrants and refugees. 

The program comes at a time when migration is a heavily mentioned topic within the country. The city of Philadelphia recently decided to provide $200,000 of funding to attorneys who represent undocumented individuals. 

Michele Pistone, JD, LLM, Professor of Law at Villanova University’s Charles Widger School of Law is the Founder and Faculty Director of VIISTA. Pistone’s goal and motivation, alongside Villanova’s goal, is to serve the greater good. The program seeks to close an education gap in order to be able to provide service to those who cannot afford it. 

“It answers a call from Pope Francis for Catholic colleges and universities worldwide to do more for migrants and refugees in the areas of education, research and service,” he said. “Access to justice restores immigrants’ joy, hope and dignity.” 

A need for this program comes with astounding statistics. The American Immigration Counsel claims that for every 10 immigrants that enter immigration court, six do so without a lawyer. There is high demand for individuals who are trained to advocate for these immigrants. Pistone’s program is set to allow non-lawyers to be able to take up those positions which are in high demand. New technologies are at the forefront of this program. Education in the legal field will see a change as this online program will make education available for more individuals. The program will give individuals without a law license the ability to apply and represent immigrants in court.

“Through scalable online technologies, together with existing regulations that allow non-lawyers to provide certain legal services to immigrants, I felt that a viable solution was attainable,” he said. “I envision a future in which every immigrant confronting the immigration system has an advocate. VIISTA will have an impact in helping educate people to serve in these important roles.” 

The process of developing the curriculum was not short and was thoroughly thought out. The program seeks to provide an innovative, interdisciplinary and holistic curriculum. Pistone shared ideas for the curriculum with advocacy organizations, legal services organizations, potential employers, law professors, lawyers, prospective students, accredited representatives and retired immigration judges. 

“The beauty of VIISTA and the way the curriculum was designed is that it caters to so many individuals who work with the immigrant community in different ways,” Christine Kelleher Palus, PhD, Dean of the College of Professional Studies, said

The program was built in three separate modules, each lasting for 14 weeks. Students have the ability to choose how many and which modules they wish to complete. The choice of modules will determine how involved in immigration service a student desires to be.

Module 1 is centered around the ability to successfully work with immigrants and is the basic foundation of the entire program. Module 1 will give students access to a wide range of careers and backgrounds including, but not limited to, pastoral workers, educators, healthcare and social workers. Students will develop skills to be able to interview immigrants and be able to work within the immigration ecosystem. 

Module 2 and 3 will allow individuals to practice the skills they achieved in Module 1. Students will expand their fundamentals in practice-based studies. These two modules are important to the curriculum because they will prepare students to apply for positions such as Department of Justice partially accredited representatives, which is obtainable after completing Module 2, or fully accredited which is available as an option after Module 3. 

VIISTA will launch in Fall 2020.