Growing up on a farm in St. Paul, Nebraska (population 2,342), Samantha Jerabek ’18 didn’t dream of a life of big cities and public policy. She chose to attend York College in part because it was close to home--she often traveled to the farm on weekends to help with chores, especially during calving season. During her years at YC, this small town girl took advantage of many opportunities for growth. Opportunities that have led her to unexpected and thrilling places.
Today, Jerabek is a staff assistant working for Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse in his Lincoln office. She describes the last few years getting involved in public policy as “kind of a roller coaster.” Mentoring from Dr. Billy Lones, associate professor of criminal justice, set Jerabek on that track.
Lones encouraged Jerabek to pursue internships and law school, and spent extra time out of the classroom discussing philosophical and ethical questions with her. She developed a love for debating tricky ethical dilemmas and exploring all sides of an issue and possible outcomes of a decision.
Jerabek’s first internship was the summer after her junior year. She spent several months in Washington D.C. working for the National Water Resources Association, a lobbying group that focuses on states rights around the issue of water and agriculture. That position led her to the next, as an intern with Congressman Jeff Fortenberry’s office in Lincoln, soon followed by an internship with Senator Sasse’s office.
She first encountered Senator Sasse when she was in high school and attended a debate between Sasse and competitor Dave Domina. “I wasn’t really interested in politics at the time so I had no way of predicting that I would be working for him someday,” she said. She met him again when she was working in D.C. with the lobbying firm at an event for Nebraskans on Capitol Hill. After interning in his office, she also crossed paths with him at York College, as he was the commencement speaker at her graduation.
Balancing the demands of the classroom and internships in another city during her senior year was a challenge. “If it wasn’t for Dr. Lones working with me I definitely wouldn’t have been able to do it,” she said, noting that he adjusted her schedule to give her the flexibility she needed. Christi Lones, assistant professor of history, and Dr. Jaclyn Spivey, assistant professor of psychology, met with her frequently as well, giving her the guidance and support she needed for success.
“They definitely get all the credit for where I am now,” she said.
The Loneses turned the compliment back on her. “Sam is one of the hardest working students I’ve ever met,” said Christi Lones. Billy Lones noted that Jerabek was offered several other internship opportunities and curated these extracurricular pursuits very intentionally.
A major challenge was that these internships paid in experience, not dollars. Jerabek sold some of her cattle (she maintains a herd of 25 head of cattle separate from her family’s stock) and also worked at a shoe store to finance her education and internship opportunities.
The spring of her senior year, Jerabek was accepted into the law program at Faulkner University with a full scholarship for the fall term. A few weeks prior to graduation, York College alumnus Chris Reid ‘07 was a guest speaker in one of Jerabek’s classes. A prosecutor with the Lancaster County Attorney’s Office, Reid talked about his experiences working primarily in family law. Her interest was piqued. She decided to defer entry to law school for a year to explore areas of speciality within the field to determine her next step.
Jerabek graduated and moved to Lincoln to intern for the summer with the Lancaster County Public Defender’s Office. In that position she discovered a passion for criminal justice reform and the rights of the accused. “Everyone deserves vigorous legal representation, no matter what they’ve done,” she said. “Everyone deserves to be treated with respect.” Jerabek met with one client in particular during this internship whose situation resonated with her. He had slipped through the cracks educationally and now in adulthood he had only a second grade reading level. What more might he have accomplished with his life if someone had taken the time to help him, she wondered. If he had had mentors and opportunities as she had, maybe he wouldn’t have ended up in prison.
Skip ahead six months. Jerabek is now a volunteer tutor with Lincoln Literacy, a non profit that seeks to strengthen the community by teaching English and literacy skills to refugees, prison inmates, and others in need of educational assistance. Lincoln Literacy also helps clients apply for jobs and prepare for the workplace. Jerabek works with a group of Yazidi refugees and is just beginning to work with clients in prison. She is hopeful that this effort will bless the individuals as well as the community, as education and employment are key factors in reducing criminal activity and recidivism.
After the internship with the Public Defender’s Office, Jerabek returned to Senator Sasse’s staff, now in a full time capacity. Some of her main responsibilities are outreach, intern recruitment, and casework. In a congressional office, the term casework refers to the response or services that Members of Congress provide to constituents who request assistance. Each year, hundreds of constituents turn to Senator Sasse with a wide range of requests, from the simple to the complex. Members and their staffs help constituents deal with administrative agencies by acting as facilitators and, in some cases, advocates. “Trying to navigate the rusty, slow wheels of bureaucracy can sometimes be frustrating when people are having issues,” she said. “Sometimes the issues have put their whole lives on hold. They can’t move forward until they get an answer.” Most of the cases she works on involve agricultural permits. She confers with the ag policy director on these cases and sometimes reaches out to other federal agencies, such as the USDA or the Corps of Engineers. "The most rewarding part of that is seeing some issues resolved in real time," she said.
Building on her own experience in rural Nebraska, she’s become more passionate about agricultural law. Seeing how the state and federal governments regulate the ag sector and how the senator’s office is involved “is a rewarding experience,” she said.
Today's turbulent political climate makes her respect Senator Sasse even more. “It’s refreshing to work for him. He sees the bigger picture and he is a bridge builder between people of differing ideas.”
At the same time, the expanding role of women in politics makes this an inspiring time to be involved. “It’s been amazing to observe so far, all of the women who are rising through the ranks. It’s wonderful to see,” she said.
Jerabek is happy to be gaining experience in her current position, but she is also planning for the future. She would like to move to D.C. to work with lawmakers there--and perhaps run for office herself eventually. She has been accepted to Marquette University Law School and is in the application process for a highly coveted PIPS Scholarship (Public Interest/Public Service) at American University Washington College of Law. She also applied for (and expects to be accepted to) the law school at the University of San Francisco. She is still exploring the speciality areas of law and schools to find the best fit for her passion and skillss.
In the meantime, she will continue to work hard for the people of Nebraska and hold on tight as the roller coaster ride continues.
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