What Great Minds Can Do: Erica Salerno
Montclair, New Jersey
Erica Salerno, an alumna of both the School of Diplomacy and Seton Hall Law School, has translated her education into a community conscious law career. As a Diplomacy student, she had a pivotal academic internship experience at the United Nations; as a Law student, she channeled her diplomacy training through selfless pro bono work on immigration and human rights cases. Erica's reflections in the interview below illustrate one of many career paths available to graduates with this particular blend of education.
- What drew you to study Diplomacy and International Relations, and why did you choose Seton Hall?
Like many other individuals who came of age during the post-September 11th world, this incident opened my eyes and caused me to realize, "Hey, there's a whole world out there beyond your front door and you need to engage with it." I felt called to be a part of something larger, although I was initially unsure of how to put a fine point on that feeling. Toward the end of high school, I became involved in my school's Model United Nations program and started reading voraciously about current events, politics and religion. My decision to study diplomacy and international relations was a response to that desire to engage in the political conversations that were taking place around me.
I chose Seton Hall after spending the day on campus and meeting with various members of the faculty and administration of the School of Diplomacy and International Relations. Something about the environment and program offered by the School just felt "right." I instantly knew the School would be a good match and that I would receive a high quality of education from professors who brought unique insight and real-world experiences to the table. I recall feeling invigorated and impassioned by their enthusiasm and was eager to learn all that I could.
- How did your experience studying diplomacy shape your decision to pursue a law degree? What goals did you hope to achieve through this combination of academic training?
My decision to pursue a career in law was shaped by the time I spent both as a Diplomacy student intern and later as a junior consultant with the United Nations Development Programme. In particular, I worked for the Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor, which was a fascinating project spearheaded by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright…Despite this being a mammoth undertaking, this position opened my eyes to the fact that while it may be noble to believe all people should be granted human rights, it is necessary to build a strong framework to ensure those rights can be enforced.
I mention my experience with the United Nations because it was really that formative. As I assisted in editing the many field reports that came back from abroad and had the opportunity to sit in on the many meetings hosted by the commission, I began to realize that the concepts we discussed in the classroom did not exist in a vacuum. The commission showed me the importance of ensuring that all people have a legal identity so that their voice can be heard. Although I had long-thought of working for an international non-profit or parlaying my short-term contract at the U.N. into a permanent career, I ultimately decided that my calling was to provide a voice to those without one, so-to-speak. The way I felt best able to do this was to complement my diplomacy and international relations training with a law degree.
- How have your B.S. in Diplomacy and International Relations and J.D. interacted throughout your career thus far?
I am currently an assistant prosecutor with the Passaic County Prosecutor's Office Special Victims Unit. I experience the impact of having both a J.D. from Seton Hall Law as well as a degree from the School of Diplomacy on an almost-daily basis. The county in which I work is extremely culturally diverse and it helps to approach people from a place of respect and understanding, especially when meeting them at a time when they are feeling most vulnerable. I have come to see what a long way it goes when you understand and know something about the country of origin of a victim or the religion or culture to which they belong. It helps to approach people on their own level and not from one of superiority or believing that you know best.
Furthermore, my time at the School of Diplomacy instilled in me the importance of having a second or third language. Being fluent in Spanish has broken down many barriers for me. It has enabled me to sit with witnesses and victims and connect with them directly, without the use of an interpreter; to me, that is priceless.
Recently, I, along with the other members of the Special Victims Unit partnered with a local non-profit which focuses on women's empowerment within the local Middle Eastern community. In November, we jointly hosted a forum to discuss the mechanisms of reporting sexual abuse and what happens to a case after it comes to our office. The hope is to conduct more of these outreach efforts in 2017 in order to demystify the process of reporting sexual abuse. My time at the School of Diplomacy as well as the United Nations, fostered a deep interest in cultivating relationships between public and private organizations.
- What is the most important advantage that the combination of these degrees has given you over other lawyers in the field?
Attending the School of Diplomacy and International Relations was more to me than just a series of courses and exams. It was an opportunity to enter into a different mindset. In addition to the textbook learning, I was afforded opportunities to travel, to speak with people from the places I had studied about in class and to understand a particular conflict or political situation from their prospective. The ability to shift prospective and to be fluid in my way of thinking has been of constant assistance to me in a range of professional situations, whether it be negotiating a plea deal or dealing with a difficult witness. In sum, I would say that pursuing the Diplomacy program put me a step ahead of my peers in the field in learning how to work toward solutions and to negotiate wisely.
Seton Hall Career Highlights
- Immigration Law, Equal Justice America Fellowship Recipient
- Student Clinical Associate for the International Human Rights and Immigration Clinic at the Center for Social Justice
- Student Clinical Associate; Civil Rights and Constitutional Litigation Clinic