Zach, a lawyer? Who would’ve thought.

I am in the process of applying to law school. Below is a draft of my personal statement. The 14th draft actually. Hopefully it will give you all more insight into why I am going into law or some of the more bizarre experiences of my life. Please comment and be brutal as I am trying to make it absolutely perfect. I am applying to schools way out of my league so I am hoping to trick them with a fancy piece of writing up front. Hope it works. Enjoy!



Folding underwear was not my usual approach to meeting people when I was seventeen, but shared boredom spawns camaraderie. I was quickly on a first-name basis with all the homeless men at the shelter. As part of a training program for summer camp counselors, I had been given ten dollars to live for a week in downtown Seattle. During the day I wandered the streets meeting people and listening to their stories. At night I worked in the shelter alongside the other men, sorting donated clothes and mopping floors. Together we earned our food and a place to sleep. For the first time I saw poverty as a set of faces and stories instead of moral failure or poor choices.

Months later I set off for Northwestern University to study saxophone. Much to the dismay of my school counselors, I had chosen to pursue my passion for music despite my natural aptitude for academics. For nine years I had dreamt of being a professional musician and was excited to go to such a renowned music school. But I could not forget the faces of the homeless men I had met. In Chicago, when I passed homeless people on the street, I continued to stop and talk and would occasionally buy them lunch.

After a year of intense study in music, I returned home for the summer and thought deeply about my future. In an attempt to connect my music to issues of poverty, I spent a week in Pike Place Market performing with other street musicians, but just spending time with them no longer felt sufficient. I felt compelled to do something to help change their circumstances. When I returned to Northwestern, I transferred to the College of Arts and Science where I bounced from major to major, struggling to see how the world of academia could equip me for a career in social activism.

Without a tangible answer, I joined an organization that sponsored aid projects in the urban slums of Manila. I hoped the work abroad would help me better understand the needs of the poor. As the only non-Filipino member of the project, I arrived alone in Manila, only to find that the Filipino project leaders had left for work in another city. They had left my amorphous summer assignment with a local aid worker: “Go to the local squatter areas and try to connect with the youth.” Although English is the official language of the Philippines, the uneducated poor know only rudimentary English and speak primarily Tagalog. Immersed in the world’s problems without any idea of how to help, my idealism quickly faded.

To make the most out of a tough situation, I studied a Tagalog phrase book for two hours each morning before breakfast. I found the local gym where kids hung out and played basketball with them. Whether from curiosity or for my decent three point shot, the young men slowly began to accept me. Most had dropped out of school, were unemployed, and sniffed glue to reduce their hunger pangs. When they invited me into their homes I faced the terrible choice of rudely denying their food or taking much needed food from the table. By mid-summer, I had organized a citywide basketball tournament, formed a team from the local community and hosted a series of basketball clinics for the younger boys. In the process, the young men told me their stories. I will never forget the evening I lowered myself through a sewer grate to meet one of the player’s ten brothers and sisters, who lived in a four by ten cement section of a sewage underpass. In a city with 70% unemployment, the children saw no point in education and had no hope. I had nothing to offer them but prayer, and still they thanked me profusely.

Tempered with a more realistic, but no less passionate perspective, I returned to Northwestern to focus my studies on social policy and organizational change. After graduation, I went to work for World Vision, an international humanitarian organization. From my vantage point as project coordinator and assistant to the regional manager, I learned a great deal about systematic approaches toward fighting poverty. I helped our office negotiate the intricate balance between idealism and practicality as we mediated between the demands of the donors and the needs of our field workers. I have relished the opportunity to use my skills in strategic thinking, organizational development and creative programming to enable a few people to reach thousands. In the midst of an internal restructuring, I wrote a strategy proposal for the redesign of our major donor ministry that now serves as the base for our current national strategy.

I have also seen close hand the immense challenges the organization faces. In Myanmar, government barriers delayed our emergency response teams for weeks when hurricane victims needed help the most. As I worried about the thousands of survivors who could die waiting for their government to approve visas for foreign aid workers, I had to remind my idealistic self that advocating for social justice requires not only passion, but also dogged persistence and colossal patience. The legal aspects of our work at World Vision bring out my most passionate side while offering concrete ways to work for change. I am learning about the works of international advocates who pressure governments engaged in the modern sex trade, the work of the United Nations against countries using child soldiers, ambassadors who use the law to help bring resolution to civil war and genocide, and the implications of war for international human rights.

When I think back to my time on the streets of Seattle I am reminded of the complexity of these issues. On my final night of training, I decided to sleep on the streets. Concerned for my safety, five of the homeless men chose to leave the warmth and safety of the shelter to join me. The police woke us up at 3am and told us we had to leave, yet could not offer us another place to go. At the time, I felt outraged. Now, I have a much greater appreciation for the crucial roles of strategy, politics, policy, and law to influence systems change in our global world. Looking back, I see that my work with the poor leads naturally to a career in law. I still have much to learn, but I am excited to pursue a legal education that will give me the skills and training necessary to advocate for social change.


4 responses to “Zach, a lawyer? Who would’ve thought.

  • Bobby

    Zach –

    I’m sure you’ll make an amazing lawyer. But…I was watching an old episode of INSIDE THE ACTORS STUDIO. They were interviewing Russell Crowe. He said he’d thought about being a lawyer for a while when he was young, until he realize that he’d basically be doing homework for a living! Homework for a living? Is this what you’re being called to? Oh no! Not Zach! Not my Brother in Midnight Wiffleball throughout college! Lord help us all!

  • Charles

    You’re accepted or you’re hired or you’re whatever you want. Where do I get you to sign? For how many years? I will even back-load the contract! Must I play poker with you? Do I have to lose again? Somehow, its not about the law degree. Its about the emergence of Zach Dillion; an awe-inspiring prospect! “That’s why I don’t think there’s any comparison between the present hard times and the coming good times. I can hardly wait for what’s coming next. Right now everything is being more or less held back. Reined in until Zach is ready and can be released into the glorious times ahead. Meanwhile, the joyful anticipation deepens,” (ripped off and paraphrased from Romans 8:19 of the Message). Two things I do know: There is glorious times ahead for you and my anticipation has deepened due to your stirring post! I’ll be cheering you on from the sidelines (or perhaps from mid-field)!

  • Jen

    zach, i appreciated following the progression of your seattle poverty experience to the philippines linked to your college story, to your work in world vision and back to the seattle experience. it makes sense and i think you painted a clear picture of how all those experiences and your passion are pointing you to law.

    thanks for keeping us updated=)

  • amyharrison

    i think that’s a GREAT essay, zach. i’m so excited to see where God is leading you. it’s hard to even believe/remember that you started out in saxophone. oh, and i take full credit for you switching into SESP. 🙂 sure love you and miss you, and can’t wait to see you (sometime)!

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