August 01, 2018, BY Beth Kaszuba

A Bucknell student talks with two men on a brick courtyard.
Left to right, Bucknell Shepherd intern Soni Madnani '20 meets with Public Defender Service attorney Jason Tulley and fellow intern Joseph Greenberg in Washington, D.C., where Madnani is working to help ensure that accused individuals receive fair trials. Photo by Emma Robertson

The child of physicians, Soni Madnani '20 planned to follow in her parents' footsteps and take pre-med courses in college — until about one week before she came to Bucknell.

"I realized my heart wasn't in the sciences," she said. "So I called the Registrar and said I want to be undeclared."

That last-minute decision charted a new course that has led Madnani to major in political science, economics and Spanish; plan a career as an attorney; and spend this summer in Washington, D.C., where, as a Shepherd intern, she is working as an investigative intern with the Public Defender Service.

"It's a very challenging job," she said, explaining that she is charged with helping to gather evidence related to serious felony cases, with the goal of ensuring that accused individuals are provided an adequate defense. Her tasks include tracking down criminal records, watching body-worn camera footage and conducting interviews with witnesses. "I wanted this opportunity because it's hands-on experience you can't get anywhere else."

Bucknell is one of 23 schools that participate in the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty (SHECP), which coordinated Madnani's internship. Shepherd interns work with poverty-fighting organizations, such as food banks, clinics and housing authorities, located around the nation. This year, Bucknell sent six interns to work at agencies including House of Ruth in Baltimore; the Georgia Justice Project in Atlanta; and Bread for the City in Washington, D.C.

This year’s Bucknell Shepherd interns are, left to right, Tahlyn Miller ’20, Collin Mills ’21, Maya McKeever ’21, Madnani, Christine Cha ’20 and Julienne Egofske ’20. Photo by Janice Butler

Madnani's internship has immersed her in the nitty-gritty of the public defender's office. Her work involves knocking on doors and asking witnesses and victims to share accounts of crimes, and visiting inmates who are awaiting trial. 

"You really have to be a people person," she said, noting that some witnesses can be difficult to locate and reluctant to speak out. "It's all about persistence. Interns here don't give up until they've found out the facts of the case." 

Visiting incarcerated individuals is "bittersweet," Madnani added. "I feel energized to do the best I can on their behalf, but also discouraged to see them in orange jumpsuits, looking lost and without hope. That drives me to do even better and find every little piece of the story, so the public defender can provide as accurate an account of the crime as possible when the case goes to trial."

Finding New Paths to Activism
Madnani, who credited Bucknell's Office of Civic Engagement with helping to secure her internship, said her interest in social activism is rooted in her education at a Quaker-run high school near her hometown of Newtown, Pa.

"Opportunities for activism were placed at our feet," she said. "When I came to Bucknell, I took everything that my high school had cultivated in me and used it to find my voice on our campus."

On campus, she's been involved in student government and the Bucknell Alternative Delegation (B.A.D.), attended marches and protests, and led a letter-writing initiative that encouraged students to contact elected officials about a variety of issues.

"Living in rural Pennsylvania, it can be hard to be part of global movements," she noted. "But organizations on campus make it possible to attend events like the Women's March in Washington."

No matter where her path leads next, Madnani — a Dean's Scholar and member of Delta Gamma sorority — said she will always be drawn to civil- and human-rights work.

"Whatever type of law I practice, I want to help people who are marginalized and make some sort of systemic change in our country," she said, adding, "Working with a public defender's office might not seem like civil-rights activism on the surface, but we're working with people who have been discriminated against, probably for their whole lives. It's been an incredible and eye-opening summer."