February 26, 2001
Newsmaker: Student Picks Service Over 6-Figure Salary
BY ERIN GRACE
With her future clients likely to be the homeless, the accused, the troubled and the poor, Amy Vosburg isn't headed toward a law career that will make her wealthy.
In fact, serving the public - while shouldering $77,000 in student loans - could make the Omaha native and Central High School graduate broke.
But a $20,000 award from Boston College Law School, where she attends, will help her take the kind of job she wants - a job helping those in need.
Vosburg, who will graduate in May, is the only student in her class of 275 to win the award and the third since the award was started in 1998. She also will be the only one in her class to earn a dual degree in law and social work.
"My heart is in social work," said the 27-year-old who has a long record of helping those in need. "I see myself as a social worker with a law degree. The law degree is an extra piece of ammunition."
Vosburg's academic performance and her commitment to public-interest law were reasons that Jean French, director of the law school's career services office, cited in choosing Vosburg for the award.
Named for the Rev. Robert Drinan, a former Massachusetts Democratic congressman and a former dean of Boston College Law School, the award is given to a graduate seeking a public-interest career.
Public interest is a generic term given to a range of jobs that could include working for a legal clinic. Some also include public-sector jobs, such as working as a public defender or city prosecutor.
Few of the nation's law schools offer loan-repayment assistance, although Creighton University in Omaha plans to start a loan-assistance program for law students next year.
The lack of aid is one factor that deters students from considering careers in the public sector, some experts say. Another factor is the salary disparity between what private law firms offer and what jobs at agencies and government offices pay. Add to those a shortage of public-interest jobs.
"It's a dilemma that has no practical answer to it," said Milo Mumgaard of the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest. "All the factors push people like (Vosburg) toward corporate law."
Corporate law - in which jobs out of law school fetch $120,000 in Boston - is a draw for many of Vosburg's classmates.
But salary is no motivation for the 27-year-old who spent her first two years after undergraduate school teaching on an island in the North Pacific for $60 a month. What drives Vosburg is "working with people and helping people."
Vosburg initially thought she would serve others by being a doctor. Organic chemistry class at Notre Dame University and a summer volunteering at a Baltimore, Md., homeless center changed her mind.
It was the summer after her sophomore year, and Vosburg, then 19, was helping people in Baltimore get connected to services. In one case, a single mother with a heroin addiction wanted to get into rehab but couldn't afford the help she needed.
"She was willing and able to make her life better," Vosburg said. "The system failed her. I wanted to do something about it."
Vosburg returned to Notre Dame and finished her degree with a double major in biology and English. Law school was calling, but she wanted more real-life experience first. So she applied to Jesuit Volunteers International and was assigned a job teaching English and chemistry on one of the Marshall Islands.
For two years, Vosburg lived on Ebeye, an island a mile long and 200 yards wide, not leaving until she returned to Omaha.
"It was probably the best experience of my life," Vosburg said. "It challenged anything and everything I took for granted to be true. It made me learn who I was - what my weaknesses and strengths were."
She then applied those strengths to the four-year, dual-degree program at Boston College - a school she chose because of its Jesuit identity. Her first year in social work classes was an eye-opener, and it made her glad she was pairing them with a law degree.
In Boston, Vosburg has worked at the Harvard University-run Legal Services Center, the Boston Tenant Coalition and the Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project, based at Boston College's law school. She also volunteers for a homeless agency and is on call at night to find placements for people in need. At times, she has put up homeless people in her apartment.
Those who have worked with Vosburg describe her as a responsible, dedicated advocate.
At the Boston Tenant Coalition, where Vosburg is helping file legislation to secure rent controls, coordinator Kathy Brown calls her "a great asset."
"She really believes in what she's doing," Brown said.
Vosburg credits a supportive family for giving her a start.
"We're really proud and have a lot of admiration for her dedication to what she believes," said her father, Bruce Vosburg, an attorney in Omaha.
Amy Vosburg hopes those beliefs and her background will get her a public-interest job.
"I hear a lot of people say, 'I can never do what you do,'" Vosburg said. "I appreciate that, but I think anybody can do it. Anyone who has the motivation to help, can."