Finding Home After Graduation

by Jonah Brown, ’14

Perhaps Katie Zerkel’s challenge in going to law school was that it was contrary to her time at Whitworth in almost every way. The transition between the laid back culture of the Northwest and the more impersonal and formal culture of the East Coast was one thing. Then there was the strong sense of community she left behind after four years at Whitworth, replacing it with an intense focus on oneself and one’s own success. 

“After coming from a fairly friendly and warm environment, law school almost trains you to be happy when others fail, as it is better for you due to the ranking system,” she say, reflecting on her transition into law school.

Zerkel, ’09, from Medford, Ore, went on to pursue a law degree at Stetson University in St. Petersburg, Fla. After graduation, taking with her a rich preparation: her Whitworth experience was what every student hopes for when graduation comes. “Whitworth is a unique four years that I will always treasure, but never be able to replicate,” she says. “I was really nervous how my Whitworth education would stack up, especially moving to the East Coast. I’m happy to say it did just fine.”

The difficulty for Zerkel didn’t come in the classwork at Stetson. The challenge came in moving away from her life in Spokane. “One thing I tried to prepare myself for, but still had to work on, was that law school was never going to be Whitworth,” she recalls. The Northwest is a difficult place to leave for people who have spent the majority of their life there, she says. But for Zerkel, it was a challenge that she wanted to take on.

Zerkel first came to Whitworth on one of seven college visits after her junior year of high school. She and her family, along with their two 10-week-old Jack Russell puppies, were welcomed by the Admissions office and toured the campus that June. Zerkel felt instantly comfortable and decided to apply early admission to Whitworth and nowhere else. She figured that if she didn’t get accepted then she would have time to apply regular admission to other schools.

Zerkel began her first fall semester at Whitworth in Baldwin-Jenkins Hall (BJ). Like many other BJ residents, she met a group of people to whom she became instantly attached and who would eventually become her favorite group of young women. But Zerkel was also faced with some difficulty in her first few weeks of school. She had settled into her classes just fine, but found herself doing little beside going to class and homework. She was bored. So, despite her lack of any student government experience in high school, she ran for BJ representative and was elected.

Zerkel continued to involve herself in the Whitworth community and during her four years she became an Arend Hall senator, ASWU executive vice president, senior class coordinator, and a member of the Wind Ensemble. She also participated in study abroad trips to Brazil and China.

But then came graduation, and, like all college students, Zerkel was faced with the decision of what to do next. One option was to take time off before applying to graduate school, a choice that is more and more common. The amount of debt that comes with graduate programs can leave students paying back loans for years after they are in the working world. Therefore, many students are now deciding to travel the world or find a job before they decide for sure what it is they’re going to pursue.

But Zerkel was different; she decided to go to graduate school right away. “I was intrigued by how the law and laws control or impact pretty much every part of our lives and I wanted to be able to understand it,” she says. “I also loved the wide ranges of the law, its variety due to it constantly changing, and the ability to be able to practice in so many different areas with just one license.” With law continuing to tug at her, it eventually became easy to head in that direction.

She adds, “I did not take any time off.  I honestly, didn't have anything I wanted to spend a year doing instead.  I was afraid of taking off time and losing my academic drive.” She also admits that “I took a bigger risk than I realized at the time taking out so many student loans, but I figured I would get in, get school over with, and start the rest of my life a little sooner.  I don't regret the decision and I don't know how it would have worked out otherwise.”

Zerkel’s strength and drive got her through the rigors that lay ahead, and she received the education that she wanted and needed. “It was mentally tough to prepare for class every day knowing that the only thing that really matters is your grade on the one final exam you take,” she says.  “If you have a bad day during that one test, tough, it’s your grade for the entire semester.  While I had a few friends, I never connected with most of my classmates or got along well with generally everybody, like at Whitworth.”

Having challenged herself by moving to the East Coast, it soon became clearer to her that she wanted to return to live in the Pacific Northwest. So the day after she graduated from Stetson, she moved back to Medford, passed the Oregon bar, and was sworn in during the first week of October 2012.

Zerkel now works for a small partnership. She is applying her new skills and qualifications to help clients with business formation, transactions, and estate planning. But one thing isn’t new: via extended stopovers at Whitworth and Stetson, Katie Zerkel has come home.