Leah Straley, JD: Assistant Dean of Admissions at Willamette University
“I was on the journey to figure out what I loved for quite some time.”
And what a journey it has been. In many ways, Leah Straley’s story exemplifies the value of never being afraid to reinvent yourself to achieve personal growth, no matter how long it takes or how late into a career you are.
Born in the farming community of Fresno, California, Leah was raised by two hard-working parents who instilled in her some of that drive she has today. Leah’s mother was a preschool teacher turned stay-at-home mom who used money made from childcare work to fund dance lessons for Leah and her sister. Her father was an entrepreneur, building his financial advisory business from the ground up. Leah was raised Jewish in a largely Evangelical Christian community, and although she remembers not being as connected to her synagogue as a child, she carries a deep value for the religious traditions today for her own family.
Reflecting on her younger self, Leah recalls that “one of my driving forces in high school was to get out of Fresno.” So when looking at schools, she honed her search out of state. She ended up all the way in Northampton, MA. Leah was very athletic (she did basketball and was the captain of the cheer squad) and social in high school, but not incredibly career-oriented or singular in her path of what she wanted to do after graduation. However, her parents helped her become passionate about continuing her education so she was excited to attend college. On what would become one of many epic cross-country road trips, Leah and her family piled in the car and toured twenty different East Coast colleges. After falling in love with the campus and small community at Smith College, Leah applied early decision and headed to the East Coast to begin her college education.
Leah carries a passion for storytelling and human connection that has been constant in her life. At the time, this translated into an English major at Smith, where Leah would flourish under the guidance of her advisor, the famous Pat Skarda. Professor Skarda often invited her advisees and students over to tea at her house and built strong connections among the students together. However, there was no clear path from an English major to a career for Leah, and during college, Leah describes herself as “struggling very much over what I wanted to become.” Leah experimented with many paths while at Smith with internships and part-time jobs: marketing, academia, and even thought about becoming a chiropractor. Leah’s multifaceted interests and the liberal art environment to learn how to learn would serve her well in her life after Smith.
Leah spent her first post-grad year working for Residential-Life at Smith. Then, she moved to Los Angeles with “no real plan at first,” other than a general idea of working in marketing. Even without a clear plan, the uncertainty was not a deterrent for Leah, who quickly found employment at a firm that did test prep for accountants. Her role was in the marketing department and she worked directly with someone who mentored and nurtured the practical skills of marketing that she had not gained from a liberal arts degree. In this role, Leah learned she loved helping and giving advice to students with life decisions. When a chance to relocate to Chicago through her job arose, however, Leah took this as an opportunity to “pause and reconsider the direction I was going.” And it was at this juncture that she landed on a completely different path based on a somewhat random suggestion: law school.
The transition to law school highlights Leah’s intrepid spirit and her ability to flourish despite the cloud of ambiguity that often looms over big, important life decisions. In the pre-internet days of print applications, Leah describes herself as a “very uninformed law school applicant.” Her basic desire to go into law stemmed from a wish to help people in her profession. She wanted to return to the East Coast, and so after applying to two East Coast law schools, she was accepted into one and waitlisted at the other. Leah set out cross country once again, not knowing which city she would end up in until partway through the drive. Partway through the drive, she was able to settle on the decision of Albany Law School. During orientation week, she lived in a hotel, and after orientation in the morning, she drove around town looking for “Lease” signs around town.
This rocky and semi-spontaneous move eventually settled into Leah’s law school days. She became extremely busy quickly with studying, clinics, and internships. She also had to get used to East Coast formality and “suiting up,” something that was a big adjustment for a West Coaster. But it was here that Leah began to hone in on exciting new passions. Her interest in disability law blossomed into a practical experience working within the public school system to get children on IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) plans. This is where Leah says the law “came alive.”
Upon graduating and passing the bar in New York Leah’s motto “let’s just see what comes next” would serve her well, and result in yet another move across the continent. After passing the bar and working at an appellate court for a few years, Leah and her current wife made the decision to move back to California, this time moving directly to San Diego. She did not have a job upon moving there, nor had she passed the California Bar. Looking for a career where her law degree was helpful, but would not need to practice as a lawyer, would be key. She found a job working as an advocate for admitted psychiatric patients at the Jewish Family Services of San Diego. In this role, Leah worked tirelessly, representing the wishes of patients during administrative hearings at the hospital. The city of San Diego would contract JFS to represent the needs of all citizens who found themselves in psychiatric medical facilities. Since many of her clients were in very vulnerable positions, Leah’s job was especially emotionally taxing. She worked in this role for nearly five years. After working through her entire pregnancy with her son, she realized she needed something with a better work/life balance… Because the appointments with her patients and judges were not flexible, it would be difficult to spend more time with her baby. So her current career interests were something related to law where she would need to pass the bar, and also offered some flexibility.
Leah’s long and winding path eventually led her to her current passion: law school admissions. Even though she is a “late bloomer” in her career, it is the places she has been that make her so effective at her job. After seeing a job description for the Assistant Director of Recruitment at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, Leah was inspired by the opportunity to build relationships with people from all walks of life seeking to further their education.
She got the job and worked there until 2018 when she moved to Oregon and applied for her current position, the Assistant Dean of Admissions at Willamette University College of Law. After the deserts of Southern California, Leah and her family fell in love with the lush nature, streams, trees, and mountains the Pacific Northwest had to offer. Something she did not realize would be so special in raising her child.
In Leah’s opinion, the most important aspect of her position is to foster individual relationships with applicants, and guide them through the admissions process as best she can. Her skills in marketing and her patient advocacy have found the perfect home. Not only does she market her law school, but she also works one on one with potential and current students to help them make decisions around Law School. The small, intimate community of Willamette allows her to do just that, and go above and beyond to make students feel as though they are making the right decision for their personal goals. From September to July, Leah is busy reading applications, taking careful consideration to connecting with each new student.
In many ways, Leah has come full circle in her current position. Her own meandering path in life has supplied her with the ability to connect with law students from a multitude of backgrounds, and she is happy seeing law school from this new perspective. As many recent college grads face a new and constantly fluctuating pandemic world, Leah’s mindset is an important one to learn from. She is calm in the face of uncertainty over her career and this allows her to be flexible and patient as she experiments to find her perfect fit for her at each life transition. From West to East and back again, Leah’s resilient outlook on life is an example of how hard-set career goals aren’t the only way to be successful and happy. On the contrary, letting life blow you in whatever direction can lead you to unexpectedly wonderful places.