On Sunday, August 13, 2017, the Bucksbaum Early Entrance Academy welcomed its second class. The students consist of Rachel Farrier, Katie Garber, Madi Huffmann, Shayla Ides, Collen Mahoney, William Mitchell, Keishanique Moton-Tyler, Andrew Shearer, Kelsey Vandenberg, and Andrew VanNice. Accompanied by their families, the students dined at One Twenty Six, and were greeted by Belin-Blank Center Director, Dr. Susan Assouline, Assistant Director, Student Services, Jan Warren, Administrator, Bucksbaum Academy, David Gould, Counseling Psychology Doctoral Student, Alyssa Zwicker, and Honors Program Director, Dr. Art Spisak.
The keynote presentation was given by Julia Zalenski, J.D., a 2010 graduate of the University of Iowa, and an early entrance student herself. The following are Ms. Zalenski’s inspiring remarks to the incoming class:
I am so pleased to be here to help welcome all of you to Iowa City, the University of Iowa, and this wonderful program. The Belin-Blank Center’s programs have been important to me for many years, and I would just like to take a moment to recognize the faculty, staff, grad students, and everyone else whose hard work and dedication make them possible.
I came to the University of Iowa when I was 17, and in the grand and venerable tradition of teenagers everywhere, I thought I knew a lot more than I actually did. I knew that I had wanted to do something else, anything but more high school, and had grabbed on to this program with both hands. In my application I probably talked about seeking new challenges, but what those challenges were I could only have imagined. They felt elusive, like what I was looking for was just out of sight, and if I kept moving forward as fast as I could, I had to catch up eventually.
If that makes my decision to pursue early entrance sound somewhat impulsive, don’t be alarmed. I give my teenage self a lot of credit for knowing that this was the right thing for me to do. And as I look back on my early entrance experience, and everything it led to, I can’t help but admire the people in this room who are beginning that journey themselves.
It’s no secret, of course, that early entrance deviates from the path that’s generally expected. Choosing any unexpected path is always an exercise in knowing your own mind and your own heart, and a test of your willingness to act on that knowledge even when it’s inconvenient, or seems odd to the people around you. That willingness can sometimes—maybe even often—be a bit of a thorn in your side, but it is, more than any extraordinary academic ability, what sets you apart.
So if I could give you all one piece of advice, it would be to cultivate your self-knowledge, and your willingness to act on it. Pay attention to what makes you happy, and seek it out. Remember that each new experience is an opportunity to learn something about yourself. Never stop asking yourself what you learned last, or what you might learn next. When you’re faced with a decision, choose what makes you feel excitement, not obligation. Be brave enough to change your mind—if you start something, then find that it doesn’t make you happy anymore or isn’t what you thought it would be, let it go and start something else. Don’t let yourself be constrained by anything but your own imagination and potential.
I settled on this theme for today in part because of a recent Iowa Supreme Court case. For various reasons, that case led me to reflect on my own experiences, and appreciate how all my cumulative decisions, plus a hefty dose of serendipity, put me where I am today.
When I entered college, I didn’t really know what I wanted to study, but had a vague idea that a pre-med track might be a good fit. Halfway through my second semester of biology, I realized I was having no fun at all, and that perhaps I should reconsider. But what I liked about the idea of medicine was that I would be able to help people, which is something I remembered going forward.
The same semester, I took a course on human rights, and found my intellectual passion. I got involved with human rights groups on campus, many of which were focusing on immigration advocacy at the time. Pairing my academic work in human rights, international studies, and religious studies with my extracurricular activities, I began to think of myself as an activist and an advocate.
That led me to the law, which I think of as human rights where there’s a slim chance you might get paid. I chose the University of Iowa College of Law largely because it offered a full-ride scholarship, and I wanted to be free to do public-interest work when I graduated. Knowing that I would be able to begin my legal career without compromise was liberating, and let me approach my studies and work with only the usual amount of anxiety, stress, and nausea.
Joking aside, law school was largely what I thought it would be, and I was fortunate in my classmates, teachers, and opportunities. Amid the haze of readings, papers, and finals, I found myself focusing on criminal law and immigration law. It’s a complex, technical, and increasingly important area of law that perfectly combined my commitment to advocating for individual clients, my background in human rights, and my love of difficult legal problems—in other words, it just felt right based on everything I knew about what kind of work would make me happy.
In the three years following my graduation, I clerked for two judges and practiced immigration law at a local firm. I had my eye on the public defender’s office, though, and suggested to the State Public Defender, repeatedly and with varying degrees of subtlety, that they really should consider hiring someone to do their immigration work. (And that that someone would preferably be me.) Finally, with the support of my current boss in the Iowa City office, I was hired on and charged with developing a system to ensure that the State Public Defender was immigration-competent. This was a job that nobody was doing at the time, and it was something that the majority of criminal defense attorneys were not taking particularly seriously.
Then, in June, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled on a case making the job I had pieced together for myself—slowly, patiently, over the course of several years—essential. Even better, it was a case that I had worked on several years ago, and had actually won at the original hearing. As I look back and see how so many small choices, hours of hard work, and strokes of luck grew and shaped my path, I am filled with appreciation for where I started—right here.
All of your paths will be different, shaped by your own passions, your own choices, your own hard work, and your own luck. No advice that I could give is better than what you will learn, and what you already know, about yourself—but I’m the one with the microphone, so I’m going to say a few more things anyway.
First, self-knowledge doesn’t preclude mistakes. I can think of a number of times when, despite my best efforts, I looked up from the middle of some mess I’d created and thought “what am I doing?” Remember to approach your learning with humility, and to continually challenge your own assumptions and seek out better understanding. That includes still listening to your parents—you may be in college now, but believe me, that doesn’t mean they don’t know what’s what.
Next, please don’t do anything that lands you in my office.
Third, never be afraid to ask for help. There are things unique to being a young college student, and sometimes you might need help figuring out how to handle them. You’re fortunate to have peers in the same boat as you, not to mention the Belin-Blank Center staff, and all the teachers and mentors you haven’t even met yet. One of the most important things I’ve ever learned is that there is always someone who will be able to help you, as long as they know you need help.
Finally, take advantage of everything this program and this university has to offer. Going to college at a public university is one of very few times in life when you have the time and space to explore nearly any interest you can imagine, and where you will be surrounded by peers who have different life experiences and different ways of looking at the world. It is an extraordinary privilege, and you should always remain cognizant of that.
I wish you all the very best as you begin this new chapter of your lives. It is truly an honor to be here, and I thank you.