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Honors Alumna Gives Back in Classroom

By Kaitie O'Hare

Photo of Jessica Waters by Vanessa Robertson.

Passionate about reproductive rights, professor and honors alumna Jessica Waters explains how her desire for social reform meant learning how to make it happen. “If you want to work to change the law, you need to know the law,” she says.

Waters currently serves on the advisory board of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program while teaching justice, law, and society classes in the School of Public Affairs, such as Reproduction and the Law. By combining her interest in reproductive rights and justice, Waters has focused her career on balancing the vehicle from which change is made and the issue itself. “I think it’s using the law in three ways: to bring clarity [to reproductive rights issues], to protect women’s rights, and to make change. It’s using the tools at your disposal to make positive change,” she says.

While she’s been involved in the reproductive rights movement in multiple ways—from communications work to litigation—Waters confesses that some of the most rewarding aspects of her career have been in the classroom, not the courtroom. “I’d say right now [the highlight in my career] is teaching and watching students consider issues they’ve never considered before and grapple with the ethics and morality of reproductive decisions,” she says. “Seeing students come into a class sure about how they feel, whether they’re pro-choice or pro-life or whatever, and then are forced to consider the other side, it’s incredibly rewarding to see that discussion of all of it.”

While Waters seems to have her career path and passion ironed out these days, it wasn’t always so smooth for her. As an undergraduate at American, Waters double majored in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and Communications, Law, Economics, and Government. After graduating in 1998, she worked in reproductive reform at the National Abortion Federation as a communications coordinator. To her surprise, Waters says she discovered she was in the wrong department. “I didn’t want to write press releases. I wanted to write a 30-page legal brief,” she says.

This was most obvious to Waters while she was working in close proximity to lawyers at the NAF who were handling Supreme Court cases involving reproductive rights. “I saw the lawyers working on those [cases] and wanted to be doing that rather than talking to the press.”

So Waters headed back to American, only this time to the Washington College of Law, where she finally found her niche: reproductive law. This facet of law opened the door for Waters to be more closely engaged with reproduction issues.

She also worked as a litigator with the acclaimed law firm WilmerHale. She was able to work on cases similar to the ones she had previously seen NAF lawyers working on. For example, Waters was part of the team that drafted an amicus curiae brief against the 2003 Partial Birth Abortion Ban in the 2007 Supreme Court case Gonzales v Carhart. While Waters says she loved litigating and doing criminal defense work for the firm, she also wanted to teach. During her time at the firm, she followed this ambition and began teaching at the university’s Washington College of Law as an adjunct professor. “When the opportunity arose to teach full time, I jumped on it. I love working with students and value their tremendous energy. I also really enjoy research and writing in areas I am passionate about,” she says.

With this role as an educator, Waters is able to bring her experience into the classroom and remain active in reproductive rights by discussing these issues with her students and continuing her own scholarly work. “There’s still a lot of work to be done. There are a lot of reproductive rights lawyers who say we hope to work ourselves out of a job. Now that I’m in academia, I have a platform from which to write about these kinds of issues,” she says.

Her work and drive are apparent to her students and coworkers as well. As a former honors student, Waters is now giving back to her students what she gained from her own mentors as an undergrad. She was awarded the 2011 Outstanding Honors Alumna Award for her dedication to her classes and the mock trial team that she coaches.

The award, which hangs prominently in her office, is a reminder of how far she’s come since her own time as a student at the university. “The honors program was a huge part of my life when I was a student; it allowed me to interact with great professors and peers. And now that I teach honors classes, it’s great to come full circle and be able to give back to the community.”