Interview: Emma DeLaney Strenski, former Mosse Program intern

Mosse Program alum Emma DeLaney Strenski
Mosse Program alum Emma DeLaney Strenski

On Wednesday, 21 February, Mosse Program Project Assistant Edward Frame caught up with UW-Madison graduate Emma DeLaney Strenski. Strenski , who was the Mosse Program’s inaugural Undergraduate Intern in European and Digital History, is currently an associate attorney at the law firm Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath, LLP. She spoke with Frame about her experiences at UW and her career trajectory.  

The following interview has been lightly edited for publication.

Edward Frame: You are an accomplished alumnus! In addition to serving as the Mosse Program’s inaugural Undergraduate Intern in European and Digital History, you graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where you completed your bachelor’s in history and international studies, as well as Indiana University, where you completed an M.A. and a J.D.. You also completed a Fulbright scholarship—and now you’re an attorney.

The Mosse Undergraduate Internship in Digital and European History is entering its seventh year, so we wanted to check in with you and see how you’re doing! So to start out, could you talk a little bit about yourself, tell us where you come from, how you made your way to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and ultimately how you ended up developing an interest in history and international studies?

Emma DeLaney Strenski: Sure. So, I’m from Indianapolis originally. Which is where I’m working now. I grew up here, went to high school here. And I started rowing in high school. So that’s how I originally got connected with the University of Wisconsin, because I did a camp for high schoolers at University of Wisconsin in I think the summer of 2013. And so that’s when I first got to see the campus. And I really liked it. I was looking for schools that had good academics and good athletics because I knew that there’s no going pro in rowing. So I needed to have a good degree, a good education, and good way to set me up for the future after college.

I figured out I wanted to stay in the Midwest but go to a big school. And so for me it was between IU and Wisconsin. Indiana University and Wisconsin. And half of my high school went to IU. So I wanted to branch out a little bit. And the programs I wanted to study were a little bit more famous at Wisconsin than IU. Which were history and international studies. I actually went into college knowing what I wanted to study. (laughs) Which is kind of rare. So, yeah, that was the reason why I chose Wisconsin. It kind of just worked out for the best. And I had a great time on the rowing team. I met most all of my best friends. I’m getting married this fall, or this summer, and two of my bridesmaids were rowers.

Frame: Oh, cool. Congratulations.

Strenski: Thanks. Yeah, we stay connected, which is good.

Frame: So you were recruited to row at Wisconsin?

Strenski: Not really. I was more like a recruited walk-on. So I didn’t come on scholarship. I just had rowed in the past and was walking onto the college team. And then I made the freshman team and then I made the varsity team my sophomore year.

Frame: And you said you knew you wanted to study history and international studies before you got to UW. What sort of sparked that interest even as early as high school, or maybe earlier?

Strenski: Yeah, so it was actually a course I took in high school. I always gravitated towards the social studies classes. Social studies and English classes. I was not a math person, not a science person. So I knew the humanities were of interest. And I took one specific class in high school that was called something like “Introduction to Genocide and the Holocaust.” Which was heavy now that I think back on it for a bunch of juniors and seniors in high school. But that class was what really sparked my interest in studying history. Specifically modern history, and specifically war crimes and conflict areas. So it started out in that class. And then also knowing that math and science weren’t for me. In fact, after I took that class in high school, one of my dreams was to work in the UN.

Frame: Well, I definitely want to talk more about how you made your way to a legal career eventually. But sticking on University of Wisconsin for just a little bit longer. Were there any moments particularly in history courses that stood out to you? What did you make of the history department and the program here once you eventually arrived and started studying history?

Strenski: Yeah, I took a, I can’t remember what it’s called now. But it was through an honors program. And it was a cohort model where we took the same three classes. But all of us took the same three classes. There was a word for it.

Frame: Maybe a FIG (First-Year Interest Group)? I could be wrong.

Strenski: Yes, yes, that’s what it was. I don’t know if they still do that.

Frame: They still do it. Yeah.

Strenski: But it was, the class was History 120, which I think was Modern European History with Professor [Mary Louise] Roberts. And then there was an English class component, and then a specific seminar class related to like the topic of genocide. And so that was what I took my first semester. And so that History 120 with Professor Roberts was my first class that I took in the history department. And she’s great. And I think because of the FIG, she was our TA. So we got to know her pretty well. All the people in the FIG were in her TA section. And she was the TA. It wasn’t a TA, it was the professor. Which I think was really cool for such a big class. So I got to know her well. And she’s just an amazing teacher. So I ended up taking a few more classes with her later on down the line. And I did research for her for a summer as well on one of her books. Using a grant that I got from the honors program. So yeah, I kind of stuck with her. So she really helped me get invested in the history program.

But then I think, I think during my freshman year, that’s when I decided to become a history major. I started having to take all the courses—ancient history, Asian history, all the different areas, you know, all the different breadth requirements that you had to take.

And for the most part, I loved all the professors and I loved all the classes. I gravitated towards more modern, so I didn’t love the course on ancient Rome (laughs). But given what I wanted to study, which was conflict and genocide and ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, I could find classes across all across the history department that dealt with those themes. Like Cambodia, Cambodia and Laos. Rwanda. African history. Modern African history touches on it and modern Southeast Asian history touched on it. So once I got the prereqs out of the way, I was able to still take classes that weren’t necessarily modern European history, but were still within the area of interest that I had. So that was pretty cool.

Frame: So relatedly, how did you end up finding out about the Mosse Program? And maybe we could talk a bit about the work that you did scanning those [Eduard Frankl] photographs for the World War One exhibit in partnership with the Wisconsin State Historical Society.

Strenski: I think the Mosse Program just posted a job on the student central site for an intern. They might have only posted it for history majors. And I came in with a decent amount of credits from high school. From AP classes. So that meant I was able to take a somewhat reduced course load toward the end of my time at Wisconsin. So I graduated in the spring of 2018. And I started at the Mosse Program in the winter, or like January of 2017. So I was there for about a year and a half. And my schedule there, it was interesting. It was still focused on modern European history. And I liked like the digital component of the job, learning about a different side of history that I hadn’t had much exposure to before. I really liked working at the Historical Society. I still have my lanyard with my photo ID that I got!

Frame: Amazing. (laughs)

Strenski: And the World War One project was really interesting. I think I probably spent, in the spring of 2017, I think I worked about ten hours a week, maybe. And I think I finished it in the spring. And they were not expecting that. Because it was a lot of, a lot of pictures I needed to scan for the project. But I finished it. So they had to find some other project for me in the fall.

Frame: You’re more diligent than most student workers! (laughter)

Strenski: Well, I was really interested! And I got to read, my German’s not great, but I got to read some of the captions. And just looking at some of the photos, it was really interesting. And then in the fall, it was the fall of 2017, the oral history program was starting a project on the 50-year anniversary from the 1968 troubles on campus. So they were going through and interviewing all the people that were involved with the Vietnam War protests. And I got to do some of those interviews, the oral history interviews, which was really cool. I don’t know why they trusted me with that. But it was fun. (laughs)

Frame: Awesome. So you graduate in the spring of 2018. And then you went and did a Fulbright scholarship?

Strenski: Yeah. I did a Fulbright research grant in Bosnia. In Sarajevo, in Eastern Europe. I did research. I did my, not my master’s, also my master’s, but I did my bachelor’s history thesis, honors history thesis, on—this is super in the weeds—but it was an arbitration that occurred in Bosnia after the war when they were redrawing the lines of the country. Once Yugoslavia broke up from one country into seven, they were redrawing the borders. And there as an arbitration to decide what—an international legal arbitration to decide what would happen to this one city in Bosnia. And my grandpa was an attorney for that process. And his whole file, when he retired, he took the whole paper file home with him. And so I kind of used my digital history skills and I digitized the whole archive.

Strenski in Bosnia for her Fulbright scholarship
Strenski in Bosnia for her Fulbright scholarship

Frame: Oh, wow.

Strenski: Over the summer of 2018. And then I went to Sarajevo in the fall of 2018. And I was a fellow in the faculty of political science. Because none of the Bosnian documents related to the arbitration were digitized. So that was my plug to the Fulbright: I want to do this research but it’s not digitized, so I have to go over there.

Frame: I see.

Strenski: And they were persuaded! And so I was there in Bosnia from the fall of 2018 to the summer, or sorry, yeah, fall of ’18 to summer of 2019.

Frame: What was that like?

Strenski: It was incredible. It was otherworldly. Now that I look back on it. I mean, I was 23 living alone in an apartment in a major capital city of a very small, somewhat still developing country. I mean, it’s still Europe. But it didn’t feel as much like Western Europe, like Croatia does, even. I did a lot of travel. I did a lot of research. I wrote two papers from that research, one of which I used as my master’s thesis and one of which I got published for the law journal at my law school. So it was like the international arbitration legal thing. And for the journal that I worked on in law school, you had to write a paper about international law as part of the credit requirements. And then mine was picked for publication.

Frame: Cool.

Strenski: So, yeah. I could talk about Bosnia all day. But. (laughs)

Frame: Okay, well, for the sake of efficiency we’ll go on. Though that sounds like what an incredible experience.

Strenski: Yeah. So during that time, I noticed in one of your questions, you asked if I ever thought about doing something else. I thought about doing a PhD. But I decided that I liked to travel and I didn’t like the research as much, not the like on the ground research, as I thought I was going to. And so when I was over there, I kind of used the experience to test out the waters. And I met with a lot of professors over there. And they were good mentors. I just decided that it wasn’t for me. I didn’t want to go back to school for six years. Or however long it was. But I wanted to use the research that I did for something. So I ended up looking at grad programs in the US that were dual programs.

Frame: I see.

Strenski: So I got the master’s and the law degree at the same time. On the same timeline. That made it a four-year program, not three. But I did it in three-and-a-half years. I didn’t apply to many grad schools. I applied to Indiana and a few other programs. Indiana was a great program and I was in-state. So. And I always wanted to go to IU. So now I had gone to both IU and Wisconsin.

So I did the dual program. Which was really difficult and not super fun. Especially because it was during the pandemic. We started our first semester of law school. So I did one year of law school and then one year of combined, mostly master’s work, but with some law school classes in there. And then a year and a half back at law school. But the fall of 2019 was in-person for the first semester of law school. And then the next year and a half was online. And I definitely did not anticipate going to grad school on Zoom. It was not fun. And I’m sure you didn’t, either.

Strenski at her Indiana University graduation ceremony
Strenski at her Indiana University graduation ceremony

Frame:  Can you talk about how at some point you decided to go into private practice? And what that decision looked like?

Strenski: Yeah. So I did the dual degree. And I did keep the international focus. I was on the international journal for the law school. And then I did my master’s, I wrote my master’s thesis. I defended it. I did all that. And I’m working at one of the only law firms in Indianapolis that has international offices and does international work. So I am in the products liability group, but we have clients all over the world. And that was one of the big things that drew me to this firm was that you know, it had those kinds of options. And we have an office in London and an office in Shanghai. So there is some work that I get to do. I’m on the international industry team. And I’m working on the international client development team for our practice group in particular. So I do still touch the international side of things. But I think private practice just made the most sense for me out of law school just to get really good hands-on training and experience. Because if you do something like criminal law, there’s no training. You just jump in from day one and you learn on the fly. And that’s not me. I don’t learn on the fly. I take time, I learn the process. I learn what people need. And I also didn’t have as much of an interest in public interest law, like working for NGOs and stuff like that. Because again, there’s no training. It’s just start.

Frame: Jump right in and start handling cases.

Strenski: Jump right in. And so I wanted to work in a firm that was international and that had really good lawyers and could do a really good job of helping me learn. Because you don’t really learn how to be a lawyer in law school. You learn how to think about the legal system and think about the laws and the arguments. But they don’t teach you how to write a complaint, or how to write an answer to a complaint, or how to take a deposition. It’s not as practical as some of the other, it’s not like medical school. There’s no rotations. There’s no residency. This is kind of like my residency, I guess. (laughs)

Frame: Right. Yeah.

Strenski: I really like it so far. Right now I’m on partner track, and I like it. And I’m happy where I’m at.

Frame: Did you move through other practice groups, or did you kind of know—

Strenski: No. I came in into the products liability. Mass tort litigation practice group. We don’t rotate. You come in on the group that you are going to work for. But I did work here for a summer of law school. And then I was hired to come back as an associate. So I had experience here. I knew a lot of the people. And when I was a summer associate, I liked a lot of the people that I worked for in this group. So I’m glad I’m here.

Frame: Awesome. Well I guess the last question, if you could maybe link past and present and talk a little bit about how your background, how the things that you learned at Wisconsin apply to your legal career. Or if you still use those skills in any way.

Strenski: Yeah. I think they definitely do. Especially the interviewing part. I mean, as a lawyer, you have to interview witnesses. You prepare witnesses. And a lot of times witnesses that have been through really hard situations. Like we always say that nobody really wants a lawyer. They only get one if something bad happens. Or to prepare to die, for a will. So we work in really high-stress environments. And I think that the oral history interviews that I learned how to take at Wisconsin through the Mosse Program really prepared me well to work through difficult witness interviews and difficult deposition preps for clients who have been through very terrible situations. I think that’s probably the most, the most hands-on tangential thing that I can connect. I think also the research component. I mean, you do a lot of research in law. Legal research. And I think the legal research I did like at Wisconsin, through the Fulbright, through my master’s, not necessarily through my law degree, has really helped me dig deep, find as close to the right answer as you can find for a legal question. And in a timely manner. Because I probably have like 30 unread emails right now. So there’s always stuff happening. And part of it is because I have that institutional knowledge, I can figure it out in a reasonably quick time, which is necessary for a lot of the cases that I work on. But I think the biggest one is definitely the interviewing.

Frame: Fascinating. Well, I’ll let you get to those 30 emails, or more. Thanks so much.

Strenski: Thank you!

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