Sara Milano, ’20, described her experience touring Angola—the Louisiana State Penitentiary and the largest maximum-security prison in the U.S.—as both “fascinating and terrifying.” The prison cemetery, with its rows of simple white crosses marching silently across the green grass, made a particularly strong impression on her.

“The majority of the prison’s inmates are serving life sentences and will never leave Angola, even in death,” Milano said. “It made me think about our criminal justice system and what it means to give someone a life sentence.”

A leadership studies and political science major, Milano gained insights into the Louisiana and U.S. criminal justice systems during her Jepson internship with the Orleans Public Defenders (OPD) in New Orleans this summer. The Jepson School of Leadership Studies awarded her a Burrus Fellowship to support her internship. 

She toured Angola, the end destination of many OPD clients, with other OPD interns and law clerks. 

“The significance of a prison comprised mostly of African-American inmates, many of whom toil for as little as two cents an hour on the prison's farm land that once was part of a slave-holding plantation, was not lost on us,” Milano said. 

“I worked under the OPD staff investigator responsible for background research and field work,” she said. “I accompanied her to crime scenes, trials, and jails, where we interviewed clients. 

“My supervisor handled both juvenile and adult cases. The youngest case that crossed my desk was that of a 10-year-old. I don’t think anyone under 18 should go to jail. Some of our clients finish high school in jail.”

Reading criminal justice reformer Bryan Stevenson’s best-selling book, “Just Mercy,” during her first year at University of Richmond changed her trajectory, Milano said.

“I’m from the small town of Bedford, Mass., where most people are like me,” she said. “I hadn’t had much exposure to larger questions.”

That changed when she started taking leadership studies and political science classes.

“Dr. Haley Harwell’s Leadership and the Social Sciences class gave me a lens through which to understand human behavior,” Milano said. “I realized my education could prepare me to serve the public good.

“My interest in political science is a result of my passion for social justice. Together, my majors help me understand how and why people elect government officials. Leadership is the solution we’ve devised to coordinate our politics.”

Her summer internship confirmed that becoming a public defender is one way she could address the social injustice she sees, Milano said.

“Public defenders are totally selfless servant leaders,” she said. “Some of them graduated from Ivy League law schools and yet are willing to accept low salaries in order to defend their clients. There’s something really inspiring about public defenders who fight for the people everyone else has given up on.”

Milano is also considering other careers with a public service bent.

Dr. Julian Hayter’s Reimagining Richmond class opened her mind to some of these possibilities. The class examined the role of historical context and leadership in shaping urban development, particularly in Richmond, Va. Students delved into the public policies that created the racial and socio-economic segregation evident in many Richmond neighborhoods.

“Dr. Hayter pushed us to look at where we came from to understand where we’re going,” Milano said. “Our discussions about gentrification made me think more intentionally about where to live.

“Sometimes I lie in bed thinking, what if I were an urban planner? I’ve come to realize that being an urban planner or working for the Greater Richmond Transit Company could be ways to promote social justice.”