’09 BA English, ’09 BA Political Science
Honors College Alumna of the Year
After reviewing all that Emily Powers tackled during her time as a UNLV student, one question immediately comes to mind: Exactly when did she sleep?
Before arriving on campus as a freshman, Powers had already agreed to the additional academic rigor that comes with enrolling in the Honors College — and then she promptly decided to double-major and double-minor. If that wasn’t time consuming enough, she dove head-first into a host of extracurricular activities. A partial list:
- Member of the National Young Feminist Task Force, the UNLV Young Democrats, and the National Education for Women’s Leadership program
- Writer for the Rebel Yell student newspaper
- Honors Student Council vice president
- Volunteer with The Shade Tree domestic violence shelter.
Well, clearly her grades suffered, right? Hardly. During her junior year, Powers was named the 2008 Nevada Regents’ Scholar and 2008 Truman Scholar. The latter is awarded by the Harry S Truman Scholarship Foundation to 60 undergraduate students nationwide who demonstrate academic excellence, commitment to public service, and demonstrated leadership potential.
Oh, and she ended up graduating summa cum laude — all this in five years.
“It was very important to me to make the most of my college experience, and to take advantage of the freedom and flexibility I had at that time to chart my own course,” Powers says. “I probably learned and grew more during my five years at UNLV than during any other time of my life.”
After departing UNLV, Powers kept her foot on the academic and activism accelerator. She spent three years working in the Washington, D.C., public school system advocating for early childhood education, then headed to Chicago to earn her law degree from Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law. There, she again piled multiple extracurricular and volunteer activities onto her plate (including traveling to Turkey to conduct legal research on Syrian refugee children’s access to education).
Today, she is a public policy professional in Chicago, where as a steadfast community advocate she devotes countless hours of professional and personal time advising state and local leaders across the country how to expand access to high-quality early childhood education.
Along the way, the native Las Vegan has remained connected to UNLV as an alumni donor to the Honors College and mentor to students.
“It’s difficult to capture in words how transformative the Honors College was to my career and life,” Powers says. “It was through all of my enriching experiences there that I really came into my own and built the foundation for who I am today.”
What led to your decision to take on the challenge that comes with enrolling in the Honors College?
My mom worked in the UNLV Lied Library, so I grew up on campus. I vividly remember being part of the Young Writers’ Institute and spending summers in the desert garden writing poetry.
As I got older, I saw the Honors College across the hall from the Graduate and Professional Student Association and grew intrigued by the idea of one day attending a unique college within a college where I could foster my passion for politics and writing. I actually worked in the Honors College the summer before my freshman year and helped revive the Honors Student Council, so by the time I started as a full-time student that fall, the Honors College had already become an integral part of who I was.
I must admit as someone who was born and raised in Las Vegas, I initially resisted the idea of staying in my hometown for college, but I am so glad I did.
Despite a grueling academic schedule, you got involved in multiple extracurricular activities as a UNLV student. What would you say to today’s Honors College student who wants to get involved but is concerned about the time commitment?
I learned so much through coursework and classroom discussions with professors and peers, but some of the experiences and memories that really stay with me are what I did outside of class: Taking a bus to Carson City with the Young Democrats to see the state Legislature in action, hitting the campaign trail with Every Child Matters in Nevada and getting to meet all the 2008 presidential candidates, spending a summer studying theater in London, and interning for U.S. Senator Harry Reid on Capitol Hill.
It’s important for Honors College students to know that it’s OK (and perhaps better) to do things unconventionally, to take the time you need to enroll in interesting classes outside your major and find ways to be part of the UNLV and greater community through student groups, internships, and volunteer work.
I took five years to graduate and now I’m wondering why I didn’t stay even longer!
You grew up and went to college in one the world’s most dynamic, diverse, and innovative cities. How did that impact you as a student and going forward?
Las Vegas is where I was born and raised and has always been home to me. It is the community beyond campus where I learned some of life’s most valuable lessons as a public servant. For example, with the seed money I received from NEW Leadership Nevada, I was able to start an art therapy program at The Shade Tree domestic violence shelter. What began as arts and crafts classes for young children evolved into sessions where mothers and staff also began to express themselves through art.
Now that I live in Chicago, people are always curious what it was like to grow up and attend college in Las Vegas. I tell them beyond the glittering lights of the Strip is a city of remarkable and resilient people.
UNLV students and alumni are encouraged to embrace the “Rebel Spirit” — to be daring and gutsy and resist convention. Describe a time when your “Rebel Spirit” was on display.
A few years ago, I took on a pro bono case of someone who committed murder when he was a young man. He had served 43 years in prison — far longer than most people serve for the same crime in Illinois — including almost a decade in solitary confinement at the notorious Tamms supermax prison under unfathomable conditions.
I had mixed feelings about taking the case. While I believe a fair justice system demands that everyone should have access to good counsel and be treated equally under the law, I also have a huge place in my heart for survivors of violent crimes. I was terrified to walk into the prison, to confront the 15-member prisoner review board and to have the weight of someone’s freedom on my shoulders. Ultimately, we were able to demonstrate how much my client had transformed in his four decades in prison, and he was reunited with his family whom he hadn’t seen or hugged in decades.
Relatedly, I once had a conversation with a junior high school teacher who asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said, “I want to be a lawyer.” She asked if could ever represent someone who committed murder and if I’d be willing to live next door to them if they were released back into society. It’s something I’ve thought about frequently over the years. And after reading Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, I have concluded that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.
After working on this case, I can definitively say I not only would live next door to my client, but I consider him a friend.