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    FAMU law school readies for inaugural class

    Temporarily housed in offices and library space in Orlando, the school is prepared to open its doors to its 93 waiting students.

    ©Associated Press
    August 19, 2002

    ORLANDO -- Florida A&M University's law school is back in business after a 34-year hiatus. Sixty-two full-time and 31 part-time students start classes next week.

    Although the students reflect a diverse population, for many there is a common bond. Like Robert Fields, many are there to rekindle a dream deferred.

    "This is where I'm supposed to be," the 52-year-old Lakeland man said when students gathered Saturday for an orientation session.

    FAMU, the state's only historically black public university, had its own law school in Tallahassee until 1968 when state lawmakers shut it down just as a new law school opened across town at the then-predominantly white Florida State University.

    FAMU has been fighting to get its school back ever since. Two years ago, state lawmakers approved new schools for both FAMU in Orlando and Florida International University in Miami.

    Several students at Saturday's orientation said the new law school's affordable tuition -- about $6,000 per semester -- made it possible for them to fulfill their dreams.

    Robert Byrd, 43, is one of them. He works in real estate in Bradenton and served two terms on the City Council there.

    "After getting out of politics, I wanted to do something to really make a difference," he said. His commitment includes making the daily 300-mile round-trip commute to Orlando.

    Audrey Tilson's commute from Sanford will be much shorter, but her desire is no less than others in her class.

    "When I was a little girl, everybody wanted to be a ballerina," said Tilson, 42. "I wanted to be a lawyer."

    FAMU's debut class has more women than men, and the students are slightly older than at most law schools. The average age for day students is just over 30, and for evening students, just over 36.

    Most of the students -- 53 -- come from Central Florida and all but one come from Florida.

    The 93 students were selected from 315 applicants.

    "It's a very good class. We're quite pleased with both the number of applicants and with the quality of applicants, given that it is a brand new school," said Ruth Witherspoon, the associate dean for administration and student services.

    The university hopes to break ground in October for a permanent campus scheduled to open in the fall of 2005.

    For now, the school is being housed in rented downtown offices. It's also using classrooms and library space nearby at the Orlando Regional History Center and the Orlando Public Library.

    Everything will be ready when classes begin next Monday, Dean Percy Luney said.

    "I'm not pulling my hair out," he said. "I'm fairly excited."

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