History as Stepping Stone into Pre-Law: An Interview with Lydette Assefa (’09)

Lydette Assefa (’09) is a student at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago, Illinois.

  1. What interested you in becoming a history major?

I have always enjoyed learning and hearing about people’s stories from different cultures and time periods and learning about other people’s ways of life – to me that is history. I’ve also found the process of storytelling, or historiography, very interesting so it was a no-brainer to become a history major. First semester of my freshman year at GC, I took a colloquium with Jan Shetler called “Human Stories” and that cemented my desire to pursue a history degree.

  1. What was your thesis research topic? What made you select this topic?

My thesis topic was studying the relationship between the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Meserete Kristos Church (or the Ethiopian Mennonite Church). For this project, I collected oral, conversion stories of people in the Meserete Kristos Church as well as faith stories from believers in the Orthodox Church and examined the similarities and differences in how believers talked about their faith and what it meant to them on a daily basis. I became interested in this topic because of my dad. He grew up in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and in high school converted to become part of the Meserete Kristos Church and experienced some persecution because of his faith. I was very interested in his story and knew there would be other interesting stories from other converts.

  1. What do you do now?

I am currently a second-year law student at Northwestern University Law School.

  1. Why did you need to be a History major for that?

As history background has been very helpful as law student. A background in history gives you great experience improving your writing, honing your research skills and analytical thinking, and perfecting your ability to read and interpret a text. History assignments and discussions force you to think analytically about what you’re reading and apply your own knowledge, experience, and background to the story to detect patterns, comparison, and similarities. A history degree also gives you a good grounding in American history. All of these skills are directly transferrable in law school and having these skills is a huge advantage in tackling law school coursework. Also, the process of writing your thesis is an amazing opportunity to demonstrate your prowess in tackling a daunting original research assignment and gives you practical skills of troubleshooting research issues when they come up which gives you greater confidence when you tackle larger research assignments in law school.

  1. At Goshen, what were breakthrough moments for your career planning?

I always thought I would go to law school, but I did experience a breakthrough moment in career planning the fall of my senior year when I took the LSAT (the law school admissions test) and scored very poorly on the exam. I panicked because I knew I couldn’t go to the law schools I wanted with that score and that my chances of getting into any good law school were slim. In hindsight, it was providential because it forced me to step back from that goal and explore other things to make sure that is what I wanted to do. So instead of going right to law school, I did some volunteer work abroad for a year, and then worked in several nonprofit organizations. After taking a number of years off from school, I gained the assurance and clarity that law school was the right move for me when I continued to return to that idea over the years. Along with the clarity and direction, those extra years between undergrad and law school gave me work experience that made me a more competitive candidate for law school and, after retaking the LSAT, allowed me to secure a sizeable scholarship.

  1. Why law school? What attracted you to this specialisation and why?

I’ve always been interested in law school because it gives me a great platform to advocate for low-income, marginalized people. Being well-grounded and knowledgeable in the law helps you understand the larger systems that govern people and the policies that often lead to inequities. Before law school, I spent a number of years in nonprofits providing direct services to low-income people and I continued to notice that my clients repeatedly encountered the same dilemmas, the same bureaucratic red tape, similar injustices or lack of resources to address their common concerns. So I found myself troubleshooting a lot of the same issues client after client. These patterns reminded me of why a law degree would be helpful to allow me advocate for the core policy change that was at the root of the common barriers many of my clients continued to face.

  1. Does faith play a role in your passion to pursue this vocation? Or not?

My faith absolutely plays a major rule in my career decision. For me, it has always been essential that my day job directly involve working side-by-side with low-income, vulnerable people. This work has not only been rewarding, but it is something I’ve always felt spiritually obligated to do. I am both overwhelmed by the blessings and opportunities I have had in my life and overwhelmed by the gross inequalities and injustices that bombard me whenever I read the news or talk with my clients. However, it is reassuring to me that in a small way, I can use the many opportunities I have been given to chip away every day at those inequities in the way I treat and serve members of my community whose needs are often ignored. My ability to work every day to chip away at inequalities gives me hope and is a lifelong endeavor worthy of my time.

  1. What is the most common misconception of undergrads when they think about grad school?

As an undergrad, I thought you should go to grad school immediately after undergrad if you know what grad school you want to go to because if you wait awhile it is harder to get back into the rhythm of school. I had also heard that from other people who encouraged me to go to grad school before I got distracted with other things in life. Fortunately, as I mentioned earlier, I did not go to grad school right after GC, and that was a great decision. I had always wanted to be a lawyer from early high school onward, but I still appreciated the opportunity to step back, explore other things, interview lawyers and see what they like about their jobs, and take time from school before going back to grad school. That break can help prevent burnout in grad school and it gives you the confidence and assurance when grad school gets overwhelming and mind-numbingly difficult that you have tested the alternatives and you know you can weather the storm because this career track is 100% for you. Grad school, particularly law school, can also be a huge financial risk that cares a substantial debt burden and the post-law school job market isn’t easy to navigate, so you want to make sure the monetary risk is manageable for you and that extra time after college also allows you to chip away at undergrad debt before potentially incurring more debt in grad school.

  1. Any words of encouragement to fellow GC history undergrads?

If you don’t know exactly what you want to do after GC, it’s ok!! Give yourself time to explore other things. Volunteer service is a great option and gives you an opportunity to travel inexpensively. Consider what excites you, interests you, awakens your curiosity. Brainstorm ways to turn a hobby or interest into a job. Or pick a fun place you’d like to live and explore the job market there. It’s OK not to have a direct or linear career trajectory and it might dip and go on tangents. After the hard work of completing your thesis and finishing college, give yourself a break from academic work and do something that really interests you even if it’s not perfectly in line with your career.