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The Road Less Traveled? Not Anymore.  

Erica SalernoErica Salerno, an alumna of both the School of Diplomacy and Seton Hall Law School, has translated her impressive 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. Students with similar interests and goals can benefit from exploring the recently introduced B.S./J.D. program that accelerates the process to complete this degree combination. Erica's reflections in the interview below illustrate one of many career paths available to graduates with this particular blend of education.

1) What drew you to study Diplomacy and International Relations originally, 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.

2) How did your experience studying diplomacy shape your decision to enhance your education with 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 an 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 obtain a law degree.

3) With all of the law school options available, what made Seton Hall Law stand out?
I chose Seton Hall because I had such a meaningful career as an undergraduate student; it just felt like the natural next step. I was also greatly impressed by the clinical opportunities for students at the law school. Legal clinics are like in-house internships offered by most law schools. The clinic is staffed by practicing attorneys who accept real cases and supervise students as they assist in their resolution.
As a first and second year student, I volunteered for what they call "pro bono hours" with the International Human Rights Clinic as well as the Immigration Law Clinic. During my final year as a student, I was selected to serve as an intern with the Constitutional Law Clinic, during which time the clinic was actively pursuing litigation against Immigration and Customs Enforcement on behalf of individuals wrongfully detained by that agency.

4) 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 started my time here in 2014 as an assistant prosecutor with the Domestic Violence Unit where I handled violations of restraining orders as well as the prosecution of any case of physical or sexual violence occurring between persons having a so-called "qualifying" familial or intimate relationship. As of 2015, I was assigned to the Special Victims Unit. I currently handle matters of sexual and physical assault against children or individuals who are deemed, pursuant to our laws, to be mentally or physically vulnerable. This last year was particularly busy, I tried multiple cases and oversaw the intake of many more.
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.

In addition to supporting the community through enforcement of the right to live without being subjected to violence, people must also be supported in the social sense. My time at the School of Diplomacy showed me the importance of engaging with people and making them feel valued. Upon completion of a trial or resolution of a case, I personally make a point to check-in with my victims and refer them to social services. Even if I can obtain a favorable resolution, a survivor of abuse may still be left feeling disempowered if they don't know how they will feed their kids or how to cope with residual trauma from the underlying incident.

5) 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.

6) What advice would you give to students considering a similar educational track?
My advice to anyone considering a similar path is simple: Don't be inflexible with your interests. Upon entering into law school, I had one motive; get back to the United Nations as quickly as possible. Initially, I wanted to return to the U.N. with my law degree and settle into a policy-based position. After I worked through a few internships, I realized that I wanted to practice law and to actively handle cases. Because of that, I would advise students to stay true to their interests and passions but not to close themselves off. The most important thing as a law student is to gain practical experience because much of the classroom learning is purely theoretical. I would advise students to pursue legal internships and fellowships and use them as an opportunity to put a fine point on their passions.

Interested in learning more about the 3 + 3 B.S./J.D. program at Seton Hall? Visit our program website >>

Categories: Nation and World

For more information, please contact:

  • Gwen DeBenedetto
  • (973) 275-2562
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