Most of our alumni earn a bachelor’s degree within a few years of their Providence graduation, and many of them continue on to graduate school to pursue professional careers, from medicine to law. These alumni are just as discerning about which is the right school for their desired program as their parents were about choosing Providence. Two recent alumni have chosen Ivy League schools to complete their schooling, in part because of the community atmosphere that is similar to what they experienced as Pioneers. Corby Burger ’12 is pursuing a juris doctorate degree at Cornell Law School at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and Derek Wenning ’14 is pursuing a doctorate in economics at Princeton University in New Jersey.
Question: How did your major evolve from pre-med at DePauw to law school?
Corby Burger: When I first got to DePauw, I planned on majoring in biochemistry. I wanted to go to medical school after graduation or maybe get into the research side of things. I enjoyed my pre-med courses and got pretty good grades. Things changed when I took a comparative politics course during the second semester of my freshman year. The course boiled down to a single question: “What is a State, and what purpose does it serve?” I loved the challenge of answering such a vast, all-encompassing question; a question with no “right” answer. In the hard sciences, you try to answer questions about how the world works. In the social sciences, you’re not only asking how the world works, but you’re often trying to decide how the world should work. What is fair? What is just? Who should make these decisions in our society? I was hooked on the ambiguity inherent to these normative questions, and eventually I changed my major to political science.
To me, political science is the ultimate liberal arts major. It required me to synthesize history, psychology, philosophy, economics, statistics, and a host of other fields in order to formulate and defend my arguments. I entertained notions of going to grad school for political science, but I didn’t want to stay in academia. I wanted to be closer to the action, I wanted to see the results of my work in the real world, I wanted to work on behalf of others, and I needed a career that would allow me to help support my family.
Law school was the obvious choice.
Question: How did you choose your undergrad and grad school major?
Derek Wenning: I enrolled at IU-Bloomington as a physics major, which I quickly found out was the wrong decision. I had always loved math, so I switched my major to mathematics in my second semester with the intention of becoming an actuary. This route forced me to take an introductory microeconomics course. After doing very well in the course, I decided to challenge myself and enrolled in the honors intermediate microeconomics course the following fall semester. It was this class, taught by Dr. James Walker, my eventual thesis advisor and good friend, that really opened my eyes to what economics was and how it could be used to understand the institutions around us and rationalize the human behavior that these institutions incentivized. Dr. Walker, as well as a handful of other phenomenal professors, inspired me to work my way towards enrolling in an economics Ph.D.
Q: Describe the process of choosing your graduate school.
CB: After I graduated from DePauw, I worked as a legal intern in the Office of the Prosecutor for the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. I helped put together a case against former Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladić for genocide, crimes against humanity, and violations of the laws of war. I had a fantastic experience at the ICTY and was fortunate enough to befriend people from all around the world. I loved being a part of the prosecutorial team, and I left The Hague confident in my decision to pursue a career in the law. Now the hard part was trying to get accepted into a top-tier program.
I applied to a number of different law schools, but with only three weeks left before the beginning of the 2017 semester, I was still on the admissions waitlist at all my top schools: Cornell, Columbia, NYU, and Georgetown. I had offers from Vanderbilt, George Washington, UCLA, and a few others, but I knew I had to do something to get a spot at one of my top choices. Be it right or wrong, where you go to law school matters. Your choice of law school greatly affects the range of opportunities you’ll have when you graduate. I knew I wanted to work in New York when I graduated from law school, so I needed a law school that would allow me to break into the NYC legal market.
At the time, I was living with my parents in New Albany. I was working in quality control at Globe (a New Albany business with strong ties to Providence). I was thankful to have a job and for the opportunity to spend more time with my parents, but now that I was back in Southern Indiana, my goal of attending a top-tier law school seemed incredibly far away. I was tired of sitting around, twiddling my thumbs, waiting to hear back from these schools. I felt I needed to make my own luck, so I decided to visit each of my top-choice schools and see if I could somehow get myself off the waitlist. It took me two planes and two buses to get to Ithaca, N.Y., but when I finally arrived, I had the pleasure of meeting with the director of admissions. We talked about why I wanted to come to Cornell and the reasons why Cornell stands apart from other elite law schools. Cornell Law only has around 600 J.D. students, which is small when compared to a place like NYU, which has something like double the number of J.D. students. I wanted a place that would feel like home, in the same way that DePauw and Providence felt like home – a tightknit, collaborative community where I could forge friendships with my classmates and build relationships with my professors.
Fortunately, I received a call from the Cornell Law dean of students just three days before orientation began. She let me know that I’d been admitted off the waitlist. I packed my bags and made the move to Ithaca. I think I can safely say that, even before I knew where I had been admitted, Cornell Law was my first-choice school. But in all honesty, my final decision on where to attend law school was relatively straightforward: Cornell was the “best” law school that I got into. Cornell took a chance on me, and ever since then I’ve been determined not to waste this opportunity.
DW: I applied to a total of 11 schools: NYU, MIT, Northwestern, Princeton, UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, UCLA, Caltech, Brown, Cornell, and Stanford. I was accepted at Princeton, San Diego, Caltech, Brown, and Cornell, and waitlisted at NYU and UCLA (I removed myself from these after committing to Princeton).
In the spring, Princeton flew me out to visit along with the other accepted graduate students, and I got to meet several professors and current graduate students, as well as sit in on courses and seminars and tour the campus. I made my decision to commit before I even left to come back home, and for a couple reasons.
First, both professors and students had such a friendly and relaxed demeanor. From what I understand, this isn’t always common in top Ph.D. programs, as professors are heavily focused on their research and other graduate students are trying to outperform their peers to get the most attention from busy professors. This was not the case here. On the contrary, professors at Princeton are always happy to speak with you when you need them. The interactions between the students are less competitive than other schools and instead prefer to collaborate with each other. These are the kind of peers that are desirable both in research and in life.
Second, Princeton’s faculty encompass a very wide range of topics, and virtually anything one might want to study or research can be accomplished here. This was especially attractive to me, since my research experience was limited, and I knew my own future research agenda was likely subject to change (and, as it turned out, it has).
Q: How do you like the school? What is it like attending an Ivy League school?
CB: I have had a fantastic experience at Cornell Law thus far. I’m endlessly impressed with the quality of education I’m receiving. It’s been a privilege to learn from professors who are leading experts in their respective fields. More than a few times I’ve taken courses with professors who have actually written the textbook we use in class.
My fellow students are smart, ambitious, and passionate about what they do. I’ve made friendships that will last a lifetime, and I’ve built relationships that are sure to be invaluable as I move forward in my career.
In winter, Ithaca, is cold. Really cold. But the harshness of the upstate winter is made bearable by the beauty of Cornell’s campus. A series of plunging gorges divide the campus, with waterfalls that stair-step down to Cayuga Lake. The campus is dotted with imposing siltstone buildings, with more than a few boasting rising bell towers. Ornate libraries provide some relief from the elements and make the long days and nights spent studying a little more tolerable. The law school itself is gilded with history and prestige, but it gives off an aura of openness and amiability.
I’ve also been fortunate enough to find success in my studies. I’ve been on the Dean’s List a couple of times, and I’m an associate on the Cornell Law Review. The Law Review is Cornell’s flagship legal journal, and it’s read by practitioners and academics around the world. I help to edit, refine, and source-check the articles published in the journal.
The real highlight of time at Cornell has been competing in moot court competitions. Moot court is a tournament-style competition centered around appellate-level oral advocacy. Basically, you get up in front of a panel of judges and present your argument as to why the law should be a certain way. During your presentation, the judges ask questions and pose hypotheticals that challenge your position.
During my first year, I was fortunate enough to win the 2018 Langfan First-Year Moot Court Competition. A majority of the first-year class competes in this tournament, and it was my first opportunity to put the skills I had developed in the classroom to use on a real legal problem. Winning Langfan meant so much to my family and me, as it reaffirmed my belief that I could find success in pursuing a career in the law.
This past semester, as a second-year law student, my partner and I won the 2018 Cuccia Family Moot Court Competition. Both second- and third-year Cornell Law students compete in the Cuccia tournament, and we faced some really outstanding competition from our classmates. During the final round of the tournament, my partner and I had the extraordinary honor of arguing before U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. I argued for 15 minutes before a panel of five federal judges, led by Justice Sotomayor, who peppered me with questions during the course of my presentation. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime moment. I’m happy to say that my partner and I prevailed in the final round and won the Cuccia Cup.
DW: I love it. My expectations that formed following my initial visit have certainly been met and continue to be surpassed daily. The campus, which was founded in 1746, is full of life and stories, which I am fortunate enough to hear about (and see!) frequently. This adds a lot of value to living here. There are also many opportunities to enjoy the arts other than the gothic architecture, such as jazz recitals and theatrical performances.
The academics are the perfect level of challenging; not unbearable, but certainly a full-time job. Seminars, in which professors and researchers are flown in to give presentations on their frontier research, are especially useful and are perhaps my favorite part of the academic lifestyle. They have exposed me to new ways of thinking and state of the art research I may not have discovered otherwise.
Surprisingly, (attending an Ivy League school) is pretty similar to my experience at IU (minus roughly 30,000 students). There is the familiar bustling of life that IU had, with a fraction of the student body involved in sports, a portion involved in the community, and then the happy-go-lucky few that are just here for school and parties. Of course, I don’t notice this as much as I did when I was at IU since undergraduate life and graduate life don’t intertwine very often, but overall, it feels like a fairly normal place.
Q: What are some of the highlights of your education journey? Was there a teacher at PHS who helped you see that you could accomplish your goals?
CB: I wouldn’t be where I am today were it not for my family. My parents – John and Sherrie Burger – worked tirelessly so that I could attend Providence. I’m a first-generation college student, and my parents were convinced that a quality education was my ticket to a better future. If you asked my mom and dad today, they’d tell you that their investment in my Catholic education was worth every penny. I wholeheartedly agree, because I know that I’m where I am today because of the lessons I learned – inside and outside the classroom – at Providence High School.
I had an incredible roster of teachers and coaches during my time at Providence. I could go on and on about almost each and every one of them. I have to credit Ms. Judith Manning with helping me become the person I am today. When I first met Ms. Manning, I was a restless, over-talkative, somewhat mischievous sophomore. I enjoyed school, but I didn’t give my classes the full attention they deserved.
Ms. Manning instilled in me a sense of agency, and she taught me to carry myself with pride in everything I do. She helped me to understand that anything done half-heartedly is only half-done. She taught me how to find joy in learning something new. She instilled in me a love for history and politics, and this ultimately blossomed into my interest in the law.
Most importantly, she taught me to dream big and she taught me to have faith. She helped me to see obstacles not as intimidating or limiting, but as challenges to be overcome. It sounds cheesy, but I actually remember a moment, one day after class, when Ms. Manning told me that I could do anything I wanted to in life. I laughed and jokingly rolled my eyes. She looked at me, not a shred of doubt in her eyes, and she said, “No, I’m telling you, you can be anything you want to be.” I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but something changed in that moment, and it still motivates me to this day. Why not dream big?
I’m proud to attend an Ivy League institution, and I’m proud of the work that I put in to get here. But with that said, attending Cornell is just another step in the process. I’ve got a lot of work to do if I want to realize my full potential as an attorney, and, more importantly, even more work to do in trying to be the best person I can be.
I’m thankful to have an opportunity to share my story. I would love to see more PHS kids go to Ivy League schools in the coming years. I don’t think Providence students shouldn’t see the Ivies as out of their reach. The students at these types of “elite” institutions are smart, they’re hard-working, and they’re ambitious; but I knew plenty of kids at Providence with these same characteristics.
DW: I certainly have many highlights along my path. At Providence, I can name a few, namely (a) having the second highest score amongst all seniors in the district on the Math Team, and (b) being awarded the Sister Joseph-Louise Mathematics Award my senior year.
At IU, my proudest moments came my junior year after I had done an independent study on auction theory, which culminated in a paper comparing the efficiency criterion of two auction designs as they related to spectrum licenses. I presented this paper at two conferences. For the first, held at Bowling Green State University (BGSU), I was awarded second place presentation, and for the second, the Jordan River Conference at IU, I was awarded best undergraduate paper. Presenting my work in front of a room of other economists really solidified my desire to do research.
Two PHS teachers in particular stand out to me. The first was Stephanie Mauk, who taught calculus at the time. Senior year was around the time I became seriously interested in academic work, and she pushed me that year to my full potential. The second was Scott Hutchins, from whom I took AP chemistry. While I didn’t go down the chemistry route, Mr. Hutchins was an excellent teacher and would always talk to me about interesting applications of the material we learned after class. He was a large influence on my interest in research.
Q: What is your expected graduation date and your career goals?
CB: I’m a second-year law student at Cornell. I’ve got three more semesters to go before I graduate in May 2020. I’ve decided to pursue a career in litigation. This summer, I’ll be working for a well-regarded law firm in New York City as a summer associate. Hopefully, if I can prove my worth as an associate, I’ll be asked to return to the firm for a full-time position after I graduate.
DW: The norm for economics Ph.D. candidates is slowly transitioning to graduating after six years – two years of course work, and four years of research. This puts my expected graduation date at May 2024. My hope upon completion of my degree is to work in academia, specifically as a professor, so that I can pursue a career in research. Of course, the academic job market is viciously competitive, so backup plans include working for the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, or Federal Reserve.
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