Whether it is an “aha” moment or a more gradual process, it is always compelling to hear from alumni about how they decided on environmental sciences as a major and how that decision has unfolded into a career. For Zachary Hennessee (08OX, 10C), fascination with the natural world has been the springboard to a career in environmental law. Soon after matriculating at Oxford College, Zachary became hooked on the sustainability movement. He described this initial experience in sustainability as “invigorating and impactful” that took a logical turn into enrolling in the introductory environmental sciences course, which then led a botany course, which was the ultimate game-changer. He describes being “bowled over by the wonder, beauty and fascinating complexities of the plant world” and this passion has informed his path into the field of environmental law.
In catching up with Zachary, it seems clear that the experiences he encountered through his coursework rooted in the community were transformative. As part of an urban ecology course, he learned about ECO-Action. ECO-Action is committed to strengthening communities through organizing around environmental health threats, with a focus on those with the fewest resources. As Zachary explains, it was his work with ECO-Action that sparked his interest in environmental law:
“I began a student project with ECO-Action and eventually became a member of their board. It was through this work that I began to understand the concepts of environmental racism and environmental justice, Superfund and Brownfield, and the importance of zealous legal representation in marginalized communities.”
Arriving at the decision to pursue law school was gradual and as Zachary describes “not a light-bulb moment.” As an undergraduate, he followed his interests in the natural world by working as a camp counselor at a nature camp during his freshmen and sophomore summers. Through a grant with Emory’s CIPA program, he spent a summer in Uganda working with an NGO. As a senior, he enrolled in the ENVS Service Learning Course (ENVS 491) offering him an opportunity to work with the City of Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Sustainability. The class consulted about green workforce initiatives and provided recommendations offering Zachary a glimpse into the real-world applications of his classroom learning. These experiences, combined with his previous work with ECO-Action, led him to his first job post-Emory as a research analyst providing legal support services for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program. While the work was engaging, it was not until he hiked-thru the Appalachian Trail that he found clarity in his decision to pursue law school to deepen his engagement in protecting human health and the environment.
So what advice would Zachary offer students considering environmental law or law school in general?
“Ask to sit in on a class at the law school and see if you like it. It doesn’t have to be environmental—most of the classes you’ll take in law school will not be environmental law classes. A 1L class like contracts or constitutional law would be a good bet. See if you can talk to some of the environmental law faculty and start building relationships with them. Find out if there are ways to get involved with the environmental law clinic. Don’t worry about not being “pre-law” or majoring in the political science or philosophy. You’ll set yourself apart by having a more technical background. If you have open-ended research assignments in any of your classes, consider writing about the intersection of the class subject with an environmental law issue. Finally, consider working for a few years before going to law school. The early 20s are an important time for self-discovery, and the rigid confines of law school and firm internships are not necessarily conducive to that end.”
Zachary has little time for reflection these days as he clerks for the US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in Washington, D.C., but when asked about his fondest memory as an undergraduate, he is quick to mention the morning when a zebra was seen on the Oxford campus pacing in front of the great bay windows of Seney Hall in April 2008.
As always, we invite you to connect with alumni through the ENVS LinkedIn Group (this is a private group open to alumni of the ENVS program). If you are considering law school, the Career Center offers resources and advising. But most important is to continue to follow your interests – in classes, in internships, in discovering – the path may not always be clear, but as Zachary has so graciously shared, the journey itself is important.