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Jules Orcutt.

Published May 16, 2024


From law to leadership: The journey of an aspiring lawyer who found their place in educational leadership instead

University at Buffalo Graduate School of Education master’s student Jules Orcutt thought that they would become an attorney while studying for their bachelor’s at SUNY Geneseo. Their experience as an undergraduate student had been difficult as the COVID-19 pandemic hit full swing during the spring semester of their freshman year, but they had pressed on with plenty of credits and they were set to graduate early in the spring of 2021.

Jules presents their research.

Jules Orcutt presenting their research at UB's Celebration of Student Academic Excellence

After numerous tries at taking the LSAT and not receiving acceptance into the law programs they applied to, Orcutt began feeling discouraged, “I wasn’t accepted to four of the five programs I applied to, and I was waitlisted at UB. I had to decide between waiting to hear back or getting out there and gaining experience, so I chose to try something new,” they said.

Their career path to becoming an attorney was put on pause, and Orcutt found meaningful work while completing a fellowship with the Rochester Youth Year Program, which runs through the University of Rochester in partnership with AmeriCorps. They were hosted by the Girl Scouts of Western New York where they worked as a Girl Experience Specialist and AmeriCorps VISTA.

As non-profit work became more appealing as a career, Orcutt began to think about a professional pivot. Orcutt’s mother Lani Jandreau is an administrative associate in the Division of University Advancement at UB. 

Jandreau boasted about how much she loved the university. It was her suggestion to shift to higher education. Although hesitant, Orcutt eventually applied to a few higher education programs at various schools including UB. In addition to being accepted to GSE, Orcutt received a job offer as a graduate assistant in UB’s alcohol and other drug harm reduction program.

Sometimes mothers do know best.

Orcutt began to thrive at UB and became heavily involved on campus, particularly with groups that focus on social justice initiatives, “I had been talking to Dr. Margaret Sallee about pronoun use because I was noticing with my classmates that there were disparities in their knowledge about pronouns and how it all relates to gender identity,” said Orcutt. “Dr. Sallee suggested I touch base with the GSE’s Committee for Social Justice and Inclusion chairs to put together an event.”

Orcutt would go on to do more than just attend meetings, they would eventually become co-chairs for the committee. “Through CSJI I was able to facilitate events that educated students about things I was passionate about including cultural differences in LGBTQ+ identities, as well as substance use and misuse prevention,” said Orcutt. “We wanted to have a safe space discussion for these topics where students could ask questions.

So far, one of Orcutt's most unique experiences came through the Association of College and University Housing Officers International program ACUHOI, which gave them a new experience in residence life, “I did not have a lot of experience in residence life, but I do have a lot of programming experience,” explained Orcutt. “I matched with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and their University Apartments system was unique because it was a mix of single graduate students, staff, faculty, and their families. This was a great opportunity to challenge my programming skills because I had to create events that could appeal to anyone from two to eighty years old. There were so many people from all over the world, and everything I did had to appeal to so many demographics.”

This summer internship had been appealing because of its direct tie to student affairs and it helped to take Orcutt out of their comfort zone, “I am interested in so many things, and that’s why I have tried to take on a diverse set of roles and responsibilities,” said Orcutt. “Ultimately I want to help people and the more I can showcase all the things I am passionate about the better for me career-wise.”

Social justice is what threads all of Orcutt’s experiences together, despite the diverse jobs they have held and clubs they have participated in. That passion for advocacy is reflected in their choice of research as well, “I’m working with Jules on a research project now and am so impressed with their commitment to their project, which echoes everything I saw from them as a student in my class,” said Margaret Salle, professor of educational leadership and policy, “I know that it’s going to serve them well in their doctoral program. They are going to be a force to be reckoned with. We will miss them here but know that they will go on to do great things.”

Research was not always Orcutt’s end goal, they came into the higher education and student affairs program thinking they would work in student conduct. That all changed when they attended an interview committee for a faculty position, “Dr. LaShawn Faith Washington had recently graduated from the University of Wisconsin- Madison and was interviewing here at UB for a position. I was able to go to her student-facing talk, and she was amazing at describing her journey,” explained Orcutt. “She was so cool! I was explaining my interest in researching student sex work and she was encouraging and helped give me some direction on how I could accomplish that. She is now at the University of Oklahoma, but that one day with her had a huge impact on me.”

Taking Dr. Washington’s advice, Orcutt has pivoted their career dreams once again to becoming a future professor. They hope to further research non-traditional ways students pay for their education including students who engage in sex work, through the gig economy, and those who earn a living through social media. Orcutt became even more interested in this topic after attending the Dean’s Lecture Series session featuring TJ Stewart, PhD, who is a pioneer in researching students who engage in sex work, “I was able to attend a luncheon with Dr. Stewart and it was great to hear his perspective and what went into his research. It just made me want to do this work even more,” said Orcutt.

Going from a hopeful attorney to a future doctoral student was not an easy path for Orcutt. Still, their passion for social justice helped to guide their decisions about their future career plans. Their faculty were able to fuel their passion for research, “I hate to say, ‘everything happens for a reason’ but I can see how it applies to me because I wouldn’t be here without those difficulties and challenges,” said Orcutt. “Dr. Daun-Barnett, Dr. Sallee, Dr. Santa-Ramirez, Dr. Wicker and Dr. Cheryl Daly have all had a huge impact on me during my time here at GSE.  All of them have supported my research interests and passions incredibly, and I am thankful to them and this program.”