Working in higher education with a law degree: An interview with Amanda DaSilva, NDLS 2009

Recently, I sat down with Amanda DaSilva, Deputy Title IX Coordinator for Students at Northwestern University and 2009 Notre Dame Law graduate to discuss her work, how she has leveraged her law degree to carve out a successful career in student affairs, and lessons she learned from her law school experience. Amanda’s role is considered a “JD Preferred” position in that she is not technically practicing as a lawyer but she uses the knowledge and thought processes she gained while earning her JD substantially in her work.

KM: What kind of work do you do as Deputy Title IX Coordinator for students? What is your day to day life like?

AD: I have been in this role at Northwestern for a little over a year. Our office handles discrimination and harassment concerns, including issues of sexual harassment and sexual violence. My role focuses on sexual misconduct work to ensure compliance with Title IX and that everyone at Northwestern is upholding standards required to be a part of this community.

In my role, I do different things, including. intake and outreach for Title IX reporters. Whenever the university receives a report of sexual misconduct under our policy, whether by a student, faculty member, third party, or anyone filling out our electronic form, we reach out with resources. We provide information about their rights and options for confidential resources, share materials explaining the University’s investigation procedures, and offer to connect reporters to law enforcement, counseling, or other support services.

If the complaint moves into an investigation, I am the point of contact for both parties to explain the process and answer questions throughout. I notify respondents of investigations and their rights and options, and offer to connect respondents to counseling or other support services. For either party, I can facilitate interim measures such as University no-contact directives and I advocate for accommodations like short-term academic flexibility..  For matters that could result in separation from the University, I coordinate with student conduct staff to facilitate panel hearings per the complaint resolution process.

Another piece of my role involves policy. Our office reviews our policies and procedures to identify where transparency or clarity can be added, respond to evolving needs of our community and to ensure compliance with changing legal requirements. I facilitate this review in conjunction with other offices and campus stakeholders

Finally, I am involved in data management in terms of recording and tracking cases to assess trends, preparing reports to campus or state/federal entities, and looking broadly at the campus climate.

KM: What are your hours like? Do you work more standard 9-5 hours or is it more like a law firm?

AD: I am in the office during standard business hours, but there is an element of checking emails/needing to be accessible at most times, and an on-call component for when assistance from our office is needed in crisis situations.

KM: Do you also investigate the complaints?

AD: Northwestern has full-time investigators that investigate complaints against students that could result in separation from the University, and I collaborate with investigators on these matters. I investigate and resolve student matters that do not have the potential to result in separation from the University.

KM: What type of qualifications do professionals in your role typically have?

AD: A preferred qualification for my Deputy Title IX Coordinator position is a law degree. Those in a Title IX role are working to comply with federal policy and the robust state law we have in Illinois so I have found that my law degree is advantageous for success in the position.

KM: What do you mean by the “robust state law we have in Illinois?”

AD: Illinois is unique because in August 2016, it passed the Preventing Sexual Violence in Higher Education Act, which sets common training requirements for anyone who adjudicates or investigates Title IX claims  and requires every school to prepare an annual report breaking down its Title IX numbers, among other things.

The Act further specifies what a university’s comprehensive policy should include and the resources and support that every university in Illinois must offer to reporters, like a confidential advisor and an anonymous and confidential way to report. This statute is aimed at creating a level playing field for all institutions in Illinois, and many states do not have a statute like this.

KM: How did you get interested in working in higher education?

AD: I was an RA in college for two years at LaSalle University in Philadelphia. I was working in a work-study position at LaSalle and I got the chance to talk to the President, who attended ND and raved about his experience, which included working as an Assistant Rector in the residence halls. Part of the reason I came to Notre Dame was because of the potential to be an AR. I loved being an AR in Farley Hall, and that along with my positive experience as an RA in undergrad drove me to want to work in student affairs.

KM: What are some of the work experiences you took advantage of in law school?

AD: During 1L year I worked as a Community Assistant at Fischer O’Hara Grace for a few hours a week and then during my 2L and 3L years, I worked as an AR in Farley. From November or December of my 1L year, I felt like I was more likely to have a career in education than a career in a traditional legal setting, but wanted to be sure. During my 1L summer, I worked at a small plaintiff’s firm in my home town, which was really interesting but not quite the right fit.

By 2L year when I was working as an AR, I think I knew deep down that I wanted education to be my full-time job, but hopefully in a way where I would still be using my law degree. My 2L summer, I worked for a big firm in Providence. I liked it and learned a lot but saw that the other attorneys working at the firm were passionate about their work at the firm, but I wasn’t feeling that same passion.

I also worked in the Legal Aid Clinic during law school and enjoyed the legal experiences, but always felt called to do student affairs work.

KM: How does one get a job in student affairs?

AD: The student affairs world is interesting and very different compared to OCI. There are national and regional placement exchanges such as the Oshkosh placement exchange (OPE) in Oshkosh, WI, which I took advantage of. At these exchanges, people from all over country who are hiring for student affairs jobs come and do resume reviews and then set up a bunch of interviews. At these exchanges, you can interview with a number of schools in just a few days. I learned about these exchanges through the office of residential life at ND, which was very supportive during my time there. The biggest one is called “TPE (the placement exchange),” which is tied to the NASPA conference, a conference for student affairs administrators in higher education. The location of that conference changes every year. Anyone can sign up for a NASPA membership.

There is a whole world of job opportunities in student affairs. One thing I will note is that in higher education, having people who are solely in Title IX positions is pretty new. Many people have combined roles, where Title IX work may be one of the components.

KM: How did you land your first position in student affairs?
AD: I got interviews at OPE and had some second rounds there. I then went in person to the University of Texas in Austin and interviewed, which really felt like the right fit with a lot of opportunity to grow as a student affairs generalist. That was a live-on campus position as my AR role had been, with an on-call component. I worked at UT for two years and got more student conduct, committee, and policy experience and while working there, which helped me focus my practice area for the future.

My residence hall at Texas housed 800 female students, with a staff of RAs that I supervised.

KM: What came after your first position at the University of Texas?

AD: I left Texas (though I still miss living in Austin!) to take an opportunity at Northwestern that offered broader supervisory and advising experiences with different types of students than I had previously worked with. My role as Area Coordinator at Northwestern was in residence life managing four residence halls. Three of the halls were residential colleges, so themed along interests like performing arts, communications, and international studies. That was a neat way to interact with a more diversified group of students of different ages and interests and majors.

In that position, I worked on student conduct matters, participated in committees, and tried to position myself to enter the student conduct field as a next step. The AC position was also a live-on campus position, so after two years at Northwestern, I was ready to look for a live-off position with greater student conduct responsibilities.

KM: Then did you start working on Title IX issues more?

AD: Yes. I then moved to National Louis University in Chicago, which was all commuter and mostly non-traditional students. The team was a small group of student affairs professionals so I got to wear a lot of hats including being the primary student conduct officer and one of two professionals with Title IX responsibilities.

I became, and have remained, a member of the Chicagoland Title IX Consortium, a group of Title IX administrators that get together monthly. They were very helpful as we worked to bring the institution into compliance with the new Illinois state law to share best practices around what other institutions were doing.

I then moved on to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I was the Director of Student Conflict Resolution and the primary intake person for Title IX. In that role, I received reports, connected students to resources, and coordinated the process for investigations, much like I do in my current Deputy role now. While I was at the SAIC, a former colleague of mine at Northwestern reached out to me about the open Deputy position, and it ended up being the right next professional move.

In my career, I first tried to lay a solid foundation in residence life, and then specialized more in the area of student conduct/Title IX. In my various roles, I have had the chance to work in conflict resolution, policy, and compliance, which builds on the written and oral communication skills we gained in law school. All of that prepared me for my career at Northwestern.

KM: How can a student position themselves to be a successful candidate for a student affairs position?

AD: Having a background in student leadership can lend itself to success, even if you haven’t previously worked in higher ed.  Focus on the student experiences that gave you transferable skills and show how those experiences will help you to interact with students and members of a campus community. I was worried that, in taking a student affairs position, I would be underutilizing my law degree and felt bad about not directly applying it to my work. But that isn’t the case, I use these skills every day.

Candidates for higher education positions have to be ready to answer why you aren’t practicing law in interviews. You want to make sure you aren’t giving off the impression that you’re treading water in a student affairs position until a legal opportunity arises. The organizations who looked into me as a candidate wanted people at the table with diverse perspectives.

There is also a personal development aspect to working at a university. You’re enriching yourself and looking to enrich others. When we’re hiring, I want someone who wants to develop and add value. We’re adding value to them too.

KM: Do you have any advice for current law students?
AD: Find a way to use the skills that you’re building in law school in whatever you end up doing and don’t let the feeling that you have to do something traditional limit you. You will use the skills you gained in law school if you’re creative, and there are lots of fields that value someone who can think critically, and write and speak well.

Find something totally unrelated to your work that also feeds you and make time for it. No matter how happy you are in your work, it can drain you if you don’t have that counterbalance. I run and when I run, I really unplug. During high stress times when I stop making time for running, I lose a lot. Running really resets my motivation and helps me to keep doing this work.

If you’re interested in pursing JD advantage positions in higher education, reach out to the CDO and we can help you get started. Additionally, Amanda is happy to speak with students interested in learning more about her career path and higher education careers so if you want to get in touch, reach out to me and I will send you her email.

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