Most preteen girls fill their summers with boy band concerts, watching TV, and reading Tiger Beat. They might lust after that brand new tote bag in a mall window or attempt to sneak into a couple R-rated movies.
Not Justine Sheehan, LSOE ’18. At age 12, she strived to charge her summer with as much service as possible, daily lending her hands to the education and development of kids far younger than she at an early childhood program.
“I kind of asked my mom, ‘I want to volunteer somewhere,’” she said. “I was too young to really babysit, so then she said, ‘If you want experience [with kids], why don’t you go here?’”
“Here” was Shrewsbury Children’s Center, an education hub for preschool to toddler-aged children in her hometown of Shrewsbury, Mass. Not only did her time there ingrain in her a spirit of service, but it also ignited an interest in helping children, particularly those with learning disabilities like herself.
“I think, throughout elementary school, remembering how much I struggled and learning things to help me along the way kind of sparked how much I wanted to help kids learn how they can get to their full potential,” she said.
She found herself particularly drawn to assisting low-income families with children who had special needs as she realized firsthand the extreme costs associated with acquiring special education. The tutors she was fortunate to study under throughout her early years required high hourly fees, fees that quickly added up and would be a financial burden on those in lower-income brackets.
Her focus on low-income families extended particularly to the parents, as Sheehan believed enlightening them about their rights involved in the education of their child could alleviate confusion and tension in the future. These procedural safeguards, enacted through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, included the parents remaining actively involved in actions taken by their child’s school pertaining to his or her disability.
With these budding realizations and interests in mind, Sheehan decided that she wanted to become a child advocate attorney. When she came to Lynch, she pursued a degree in applied psychology and human development. She desired to shape her undergraduate course load so as to equip herself with any tool she might need with future clients in the field of child advocacy.
Audrey Freeman, then the Lynch dean, assisted her in arranging her schedule to accommodate minors useful to her future career. David Scanlon, a Lynch professor, and his Educational Strategies for Teaching Students with Special Needs course inspired her to focus on policy change within the realm of special education, which differentiated her ambition to be an attorney from Lynch students who aimed to become teachers.
Along with her studies in Lynch, Sheehan continues to intimately experience the development of children with disabilities through her service. She served as a volunteer at BC’s Children’s Center, a play-centered developmental center for young children, and Allston-Brighton Head Start, which provides an individualized curriculum as well as special needs services to 3- to 5-year olds.
“I think you can learn from the book as much as you want, but when you’re on the ground with kids,” she said. “I could see them grow.”
Her most recent summer service endeavor was participating in the Cuddler Program at St. Vincent Hospital where she held babies undergoing drug withdrawals.
“I could kind of see first-hand the symptoms of drug withdrawal situations,” she said. “It was sad, but I loved doing it.”
Sheehan stepped into the legal scene of child advocacy when she began interning with the Worcester County District Attorney the summer following her freshman year. In the summers following, she served as an education attorney intern at Worcester Legal Aid and as the Governor’s Council intern. Within these programs, she developed her inclination for leadership by heading programs for handling sexual assault cases on college campuses and by assisting in processing judicial nominations.
As if her involvement in aiding others wasn’t enough, advocacy meets athlete in Sheehan. She has continued to play for BC field hockey throughout her four years on the Heights, two of which the team advanced to the NCAA Tournament and even reached the Elite Eight in 2015.
Regardless of the heavy time commitment field hockey requires, Sheehan still manages to stand out within her sport as a leader and steward. She was voted Community Service Chairperson for the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, a role in which she coordinates the pen pal program, where over 200 student-athletes exchange letters once a month with kids at the Thomas A. Edison School in Brighton.
“It’s good for them because they’re a low-income population and a lot of them are immigrants,” Sheehan said. “It’s good for them to see a college campus because a lot of them will be first-generation college students.”
She notes that, aside from the other projects she involves herself in as service chairperson, her most personally significant accomplishment to date is receiving the the ACC Top Six for Service Award, which celebrates student-athletes who exhibit an exceptional inclination for service within their community, saying “It reminds me how important it is to give back.”
Along with service, field hockey also offers Sheehan an outlet to burn off steam and spend time with her best friends.
“I think, coming into BC, I definitely loved having 20 girls immediately as friends,” she said. “That was great. We’re basically together all the time, they’re a great support system for me.”
This support extends to the next challenge on Sheehan’s horizon—law school. She’s nearing application deadlines this fall and hopes to attend any institution located in Boston. After application and field hockey season are over, she plans to soak up her final days at BC by savoring the campus lifestyle.
Serving others in all she does, from sports to legal aspirations and beyond, she embraces every new challenge with a warm heart, curious mind, and unflinching resoluteness.
Featured Image Courtesy of Justine Sheehan