Zenker came to Wagner from rural Port Jervis, New York, with an interest in the law. She chose Wagner because she wanted to be in New York City, and she wanted to major in philosophy. For Zenker, studying philosophy was the best way to hone the critical reading and effective writing skills that she needed for a law career.
Her First-Year Learning Community combined philosophy and Spanish, and it influenced her in many key ways: She decided to take on a double major, in both Spanish and philosophy. She worked with the local immigrant community. She learned to advocate for social issues. She found her best friends and faculty mentors. (Read more about Zenker's undergraduate experience.)
She calls this learning community “key to my experience at Wagner.” She and her fellow students bonded over their frequent travel and volunteer work at an immigrant center in the Port Richmond neighborhood of Staten Island. Inspired by what they had learned, they entered a national competition, Debating for Democracy, advocating for the DREAM Act.
Through this process, Zenker learned about Generation Citizen, a national program in which college students bring civics education to their younger peers. In other boroughs of New York City, college students were leading this program in the local high schools. But it didn’t exist in Staten Island, so Zenker founded a chapter at Wagner. As its executive director, she recruited, organized, and trained her fellow students and expanded partnerships with Staten Island schools.
“You have to become comfortable with thinking on your feet and improvising, and I did a lot of that at Wagner.”
Experiential learning, like volunteering with the immigrant center and running Generation Citizen, was a key element of the Wagner Plan for her. “I have a hard time conceptualizing things without some kind of context, and that came through the experiential portion,” she says. She gained skills in teaching, administration, and management, and the ability to handle the unknown.
“There’s so much hands-on professional experience that I got before going into the work force, that I don’t think other universities offer. And that gave me a lot more perspective than the average student got,” she says. “You have to become comfortable with thinking on your feet and improvising, and I did a lot of that at Wagner. It helped me get over the fear of not completely knowing what I’m going to need to do.”
She based her approach to law school on her Wagner experiences, seeking out hands-on volunteer opportunities with legal clinics in order to apply what she was learning in the classroom. She also kept up her skills in Spanish and her connection to immigrant issues through externships with organizations like Southern Migrant Legal Services and Global Workers Justice Alliance.
All of these experiences, as both a Wagner philosophy and Spanish major and as a civically engaged law student, allowed her to build the skills she needed within and beyond the classroom.
“I think employers want to see that you can do work and are not just book smart,” she says. “You can be brilliant, but it might not translate into someone who’s personable and can communicate. With the work I’m going into, you need to have all those things.
“Wagner makes you communicate with people and test your skills that way. And you have a demonstrable record of what you can do when you go out into the work force, and that’s what will be appealing to an employer.”