Why did you decide to become an English major, and how did it work to double major with History?
At first I was a History major, then I picked up English. My first year I was inspired by an American Lit survey course with Bob Niemi. We covered Emily Dickinson and I was just blown away by her short form and how intense it was. It actually inspired me to start writing poetry for the first time in my life, and I’ve done that on and off. My history classes also gave me a feel for English Lit. During my first year, I took American History with Norb Kuntz, and he had as reading My Antonia by Willa Cather and Frederick Douglass’ autobiography, so it all tied in together. I then decided to double major. A historian once said, “History tells you a bridge was built but it doesn’t tell you about the pain in the men’s backs who built it.” (I’m paraphrasing a little). Great literature tells you about the pain, it fills us with a greater understanding of what’s happening.
What are some memorable classes and teachers from your time at Saint Michael’s?
There are three that stand out more than others. One was a course I took with George Dameron on Italy between the years 1200 and 1400, where we delved into politics, art, literature, architecture, social norms and everything else during that period. There was also a course I took with Bob Niemi called American Realism, where we read Jack London, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, and Frank Norris. I think it spoke to me because of my working-class immigrant background. Even after college I continued to read such books, like Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Norris’ The Octopus. The third one that stands out is “Milton” with Nick Clary. Two thirds of the course was devoted to “Paradise Lost,” and the whole approach was vert interactive with students. We really delved into the text and came up with all kinds of ideas. It was very exciting and stimulating.
How did the English major shape you as a person?
I think it definitely opened doors for me on in terms of exploring existence through literature, and it made me a poet. My first poem I wrote was while reading Emily Dickinson. I remember it well – it was a critique of the first Gulf War, and it was published in the campus alternative newspaper, The Devil’s Advocate. By the way, when are we going to see some campus radicals resurrect that paper? So yeah, for me personally, it made me realize I could express myself in a different way. Poetry does that for you, and it’s open the doors to other forms of literature. I’ve become a big fan plays, and I’ve even written one myself (just finished it off).
What did you like about our department?
The fact that Lorrie Smith was my academic advisor. That meant I made regularly trips to her office, which was great because it’s located right next to Kerry Shea’s office. 😉
What have you been doing since you graduated, and how does it relate to being an English major?
A couple of years after graduating I attended Vermont Law School and graduated in 1999. I’ve been practicing law since then. At first I did business and corporate law, but didn’t really find it personally fulfilling. In 2006 I left the corporate to go work for Legal Aid in Orlando, Florida, where I got to represent refugees seeking asylum in the United States, as well as undocumented immigrant women who were victims of domestic violence. In 2012 I moved back to New York City, where I spent a year working a public defenders office in Harlem, representing immigrants with criminal convictions that were facing deportation, and then in 2013 I started my own practice in downtown Manhattan. I do mostly immigration litigation before the federal courts (both trial and appellate work), as well as help people who want to become residents or citizens of the U.S. In terms of how my work relates to being an English major, I was already a pretty good writer when I started college. I got better at it while at St. Michael’s. I think any liberal arts that makes you dig deeper (as literature does) makes you a better writer, and that’s important when I’m writing briefs for, say, the U.S. court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. It really matters. In fact, I’ve had numerous appellate cases where government attorneys have called me and agreed with my written argument, resulting in the case being sent back to the trial court without a decision from the appellate court. so writing well – clear and concise and focused on your points – does make a difference to others who read your work. Plus, I deal with people who suffered or faced persecution and torture in their home country. Having a sense of history, and understanding the root cause of a country’s instability is important. Literature is a part of that understanding. Having read Frederick Douglass, the Grapes of Wrath and so forth, I listen to my clients and realize they face similar obstacles. Yes, that includes slavery – I’ve had a couple of clients who were forced into sexual slavery at a young age.
You were writing a lot of poetry in college. Are you still writing?
Yes, but not poetry. I’ve written poetry on and off over the years, depending on what’s happening in my life. It’s something that’s a part of me, that’s always there in the background, something I can turn to and pick up when the urge hits me. I actually just finished my play (re-edited of course), and now I’m working with a creative director at a small theatre company in Manhattan to get it produced.
What are you reading these days?
Right now I’m almost done reading Jose Saramago’s Blindness. Next on the list is Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Heretic and some poetry by Charles Simic. Plus I’ve got a couple of scholarly books on refugees and asylum on my plate.