PROFILE: Joint Degree Pays Off With Top Washington Assignment

The pioneering joint degree program in women’s studies and the law at the University of Cincinnati College of Law will break new ground again this month with the graduation of Ellen Eardley.

Following the college’s 170th annual Hooding Ceremony on May 17, Eardley will become the first UC College of Law grad to join the staff of the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) in Washington, D.C.

"It’s an incredible opportunity for her," says UC Assistant Professor of Law Verna Williams. "These are some of the most competitive jobs in the country. They only have 10 to 12 attorneys on staff, and they pull from schools like Harvard and NYU, and from individuals serving as judicial clerks at the highest levels in the country."

Williams herself was with the NWLC for eight years prior to coming to UC in 2001. Before leaving her post as the center’s Vice President and Director of Education Opportunities, her experiences included arguing – and winning – a sexual harassment case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

"I think I’m really blessed, because I’m going to get to do exactly what it was that I wanted to do coming into law school," Eardley says of her opportunity.

With the center, she will be working on issues related to Title IX, such as sex discrimination in athletics and career education opportunities. "The Bush Administration has been advocating for cutting back on Title IX," Eardley says. "This position will help respond to that and advocate for a strengthening of Title IX, or at least leaving it as is."

Eardley says her education at UC has helped her realize "that the field of women’s studies isn’t just about women. Most of the theoretical frameworks involved discuss how social factors restrict all of us. I am a firm believer that sexism is just as harmful to men in restricting their behavior as it is to women. I also don’t think we can envision how gender functions in our society without also thinking about race and class."

The joint degree program was the first of its kind in the country and graduated its first students in 2000. The program allows students to earn both a law degree and a master’s degree in women’s studies in four years, instead of the five it would take to earn them separately. Graduates of the program are well-prepared for careers in areas such as family law, human rights, sex-based discrimination and civil liberties.

Eardley actually taught a pair of undergraduate courses in women’s studies while attending law school. She also was heavily involved in a number of organizations. Most reflected her commitment to public service law.

"She’s a student of unparalleled energy," says Williams. "She’s been involved in so many activities, particularly activities that show her commitment to serving the public interest. She’s a real go-getter, and I think she’s someone we’ll be hearing from in the future."

Eardley has been instrumental in laying the groundwork for a Loan Repayment Assistance Program within the college for graduates headed into government positions or other types of non-profit public service jobs. "The average public interest or government salary (for young lawyers) is between $35-40,000," she says. "Students coming out of law school can be $50,000 or more in debt because of their loans. That’s not so bad if you get a job with a law firm downtown, but if you’re working as a public defender or in the prosecutor’s office or in the Legal Aid Society, it is definitely more difficult to manage that kind of debt."

Eardley’s position will be made easier by a two-year fellowship she won from an organization called Equal Justice Works. That group will pay her salary for two years, and assist with loan repayment.

Eardley is gratified to see an increasing interest in public service among her colleagues in law school. UC’s Public Interest Law Group set records this year for the number of applicants for its grants, as well as the number of disbursements handed out.

"I think there’s an unfortunate stigma sometimes that, because it doesn’t pay what the private sector can pay, the people doing public interest work are not that smart," says Eardley, who, with her 4.04 GPA, is tops among all 135 graduates from the UC College of Law this year. "It’s important to confront that myth. Educated and intelligent people can and are making this choice."

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