Black Student Alliance President. Student-Athlete. Student Success Leader. Batten Leadership Institute Participant. In making the most of her undergraduate experience at Hollins, Tyler Sesker ’22 has charted her own unique course. And with such a wide range of interests, it’s not surprising that she chose to major in gender and women’s studies (GWS).
“I never felt like I wasn’t being supported in what I wanted to do, and while GWS is a space where social justice work is very important, the department recognizes it happens in different ways for each student,” she explained. “Everybody’s attitude is, ‘Okay, if you want to do something that presses the bubble, let’s try all the things.’ GWS allows you to tailor your talents into how you want to change the world once you graduate.” Assistant Professor of Political Science Courtney Chenette, who is a member of the GWS program faculty, introduced her to the criminal justice system and the idea of practicing law, resulting in Sesker’s pursuit of a pre-law concentration in tandem with her major. “I honestly would not have any of the experiences I had as an undergraduate without the support and guidance Professor Chenette has given me,” she said.
Sesker has felt called to bring a lasting impact to both individuals and communities. She interned during the summer of 2020 with the Democratic Attorneys General Association, where she worked on various campaigns related to policing. That experience piqued her interest in a Signature Internship with the Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights Under Law in Washington, D.C., which was being offered during the 2021 January Short Term.
“When I applied, I thought I wanted to do work in housing. But when I interviewed, since my background was in policing, they told me they have a whole committee dedicated toward police work and people who are facing injustices within the justice system. So, I spent that entire internship looking into the law enforcement bill of rights – what states had it and what they were doing with it. I also researched states where defendants had been incarcerated for a long period of time because they couldn’t make bail or they had a ticket or fine they couldn’t afford to pay.” How juveniles fared under those circumstances became of particular concern to Sesker. “What happened if their parents couldn’t pay or simply couldn’t be found? They stayed in the system.”
In the summer of 2021, Sesker became one of only six undergraduates from across the nation chosen for pre-law positions in the Investigative Internship Program at the Georgetown University Law Center’s Criminal Justice Clinic. She focused on pre-trial evidence gathering and defense strategy building and assisted both adult and juvenile clients.
“I worked with their attorneys on a day-to-day basis, investigating what happened and finding and interviewing witnesses,” Sesker said.
Sesker also discovered that working with cases involving the immediate early release of inmates through a process known as “compassionate release” was especially rewarding. According to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons, inmates may be eligible for compassionate release in situations where there are “particularly extraordinary or compelling circumstances which could not reasonably have been foreseen by the court at the time of sentencing.” These circumstances may include “medical or humanitarian changes in an inmate’s situation.”
“These clients had already been incarcerated for a number of years – 20 years is the minimum for compassionate release,” Sesker said. She would often have to spend considerable time cutting through red tape to simply find eligible inmates, and then conduct lengthy interviews with them once they were located. “It was good though to learn from people what they were like when they were first incarcerated, and who they are now as they prepare for release. Hearing those stories makes it worthwhile in understanding why this person needs to be out.” Sesker also talked to the families of both the defendant and their victims. “It was exciting getting that perspective.”
For Sesker, the insights she gained from that internship are invaluable. “It’s one thing to talk about the prison system in class, but it’s something different to physically be in there. It’s frustrating when you see how the system has failed a client, but once you’ve seen it you know exactly what you want to do to fix it and how you want to do it.” The work was demanding, Sesker noted, “but I never felt like I was tired of it. I’m tired in a good way because I know I’m doing good work and I’m doing this because I’m helping somebody else. At the end of the day, I knew what I was doing is exactly where I wanted to be and what I want to keep doing once I graduate and go on to law school.”
Sesker has also found inspiration from her peers in being an active member and leader of the Black Student Alliance and in playing on the volleyball team during all four years of her undergraduate career. “Coming here and playing for Hollins has been a great experience. The teams are so excited for each other. I live in an apartment with two basketball players, a soccer player, and another volleyball player, and we’re always cheering each other on at games. That’s not what I saw at other schools. What’s so distinct about Hollins’ athletic department is that it’s a family that really cares for each other. I don’t think I would have had that experience anywhere else.”
Working as a Student Success Leader in the first-year seminar “Disabling Ableism” taught by Professor of Religious Studies Darla Schumm showed Sesker that one should always be open to new points of view from a variety of sources. “The course is dedicated to how we live in this ableist world that doesn’t pay attention to the disabled, and it was this mixing pot of learning and experiencing things. I was the SSL for the course, but I also felt like I was a student. There were plenty of days I came in and one of the first-years would tell me something they learned from the readings and I would say, ‘Wow, I never thought about that, teach me what I’m missing.’ They impacted me as much as I impacted them.”
This fall, Sesker will build upon her involvement in Hollins’ Batten Leadership Institute as she enters the Master of Public Policy program at the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. She can potentially finish her master’s degree and complete law school in four years instead of five at UVa.
“Working on my senior thesis, I’ve been looking more into public policy and how to affect the things that I’m concerned about. Prison systems, policing, LGBTQ rights, things like that are impacted by public policy. That’s what interested me in the public policy program itself at UVa, and I was drawn by the leadership component it also offers. I don’t think I would be the student I am without the Batten Leadership Institute at Hollins, so to be able to go to program where public policy and leadership intertwine with each other is important. I don’t think it’s enough to just say, ‘I want to create change.’ I also want to be a leader when I’m creating that change.”