Positive impact: Peace Corps experience piqued student's interest in law


Photo courtesy of Emily Van Dam

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Emily Van Dam had no intention of going to law school until she did a two-year stint with the Peace Corps in Tanzania.   

“I had a lot of time to think about what I wanted to do with my life, and what my priorities were,” says Van Dam, now a 2L student at the University of Michigan Law School who will intern this coming summer for Earth Justice in Washington, D.C.   

“The field of law appealed because I felt like it offered the chance to have a meaningful and positive impact on the world around me. I wanted to do something with my life that meant something.

“Peace Corps showed me that change can be very difficult to achieve, and that you will face a lot of setbacks in life, but it also taught me that fear of failure is no excuse for not trying. I wanted to continue working for things I believed in, and law school seemed like the right fit.”

Not only has MLaw been the right fit, but Van Dam also is one of three MLaw students who landed 2018 Dow Sustainability Fellowships. She and five other Dow fellows are working on a project related to electronic waste (e-waste) in the local area. Van Dam receives $20,000 for her studies, which run from January 2018 to January 2019.

The new managing editor of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law (MJEAL), Van Dam also is a supervisor on the Environmental Crimes Project run by Professor David Uhlmann, and a student attorney for the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP). She is enjoying her law school experience in Ann Arbor that included last summer’s internship at the Attorney General’s Office in California.

“I’m surrounded by so many brilliant people every day, who all bring their own unique experience and perspectives to the table and best of all, everyone is supportive of each other and wants to see each other succeed,” she says. “I also appreciate how supportive the University is of its students and their career goals. Being a public interest student I was worried I would be encouraged to pursue big law, because that’s what most students do. Instead, I found an incredible amount of support from both students and the Law School for my career goals, and am happily working my way towards a career in environmental law. I could not be more grateful for all of the support the Law School and the University have given me.”

The daughter of a civil engineer, Van Dam earned an undergrad degree in civil and environmental engineering, and master’s degree in civil engineering, both from the University of Illinois.

Initially she was drawn to the environmental aspect, and projects addressing such issues as water quality and water scarcity.

“As I progressed in school, I realized I didn’t necessarily have to work in environmental engineering to have a positive impact on the world, and learning more about how the world worked—from transportation networks to the materials we use to build and shape the world around us—appealed to me,” she says. “Civil engineering combines interesting engineering challenges with things that can have a positive and lasting impact.”

After graduation, she spent two years in the Peace Corps, teaching physics at a rural secondary school in Tanzania, helping install a water catchment system at the school, and working on projects related to HIV and malaria.

“I loved my Peace Corps experience, even though it wasn’t always easy,” she says. “I loved how it gave me the opportunity to learn about, interact with, and participate in a small community in an overlooked corner of Tanzania—an opportunity I don’t think any other program in the world would have given me. I learned so much, both about Tanzania and about myself, and grew as a person, becoming more confident in myself and my abilities, and learning when to stand up for myself, and when to stay quiet and listen. There were also a lot of chances to do some cool trips—including climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and learning how to scuba dive.”

A native of Houghton in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Van Dam currently lives in Ann Arbor, where she takes ballet classes, enjoys crocheting and knitting, and works as an LSAT tutor for Manhattan Prep.