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The Importance of Knowing What You Don’t Want


Chelsea Wiggins '12
Chelsea Wiggins '12

I arrived on the Hill confident I knew what I wanted to do—I was going to be an English major, and I was going to love it. And I was, and I did! I loved to read, I loved to write, and Hamilton was a place I knew I could find ample opportunities to do both, particularly given the major I chose. 

Almost before I knew it, three years had passed and  suddenly I found myself as a senior, needing to make a plan for what came next. My dad (also a Hamilton alum), is a lawyer, and I grew up watching him fulfilled and engaged by a career path that he felt truly enabled him to positively contribute to society. So I chose to pursue a law degree, before really knowing what kind of law I wanted to practice—which I would not necessarily recommend! But I knew a law  degree would allow me to find ways to meaningfully improve lives, so I went on to law school, figuring I’d sort the rest out once I got there.

When you’re young and plotting out a potential career path, people talk to you a lot about what you want to do. For me, figuring out what I didn’t want to do turned out to be just as important. I started law school torn between environmental law and reproductive rights law. Being in D.C. meant I could use both summer and school-year externships to help me choose between the two. A summer spent doing environmental law research showed me that I couldn’t ever do that long-term—it was like watching paint dry! But when I interned at the Center for Reproductive Rights, I loved every second of it, and I devoted the remainder of my time in law school to classes and externships to help me learn and grow in the reproductive rights space. 

Today, I am still in the sexual and reproductive health/rights/justice field, working as Counsel at the National Abortion Federation, a nonprofit based in D.C. The current administration is a perpetual challenge for my field, and “productively channeling outrage” is a skill I’m required to use more frequently these days than I’d ever imagined I might while at Hamilton. 

As a teenager, I thought for a time I would become a doctor—I knew I wanted to help people after all, and I loved biology, so medicine seemed like it was a great fit. Eventually, I remembered how squeamish I was (and still am), and determined that maybe dealing directly with patients and their various…fluids…wasn’t for me. Yet again, something I didn’t want to do! That realization, though, helped set me on the track to my current job, where I get to support and advocate for abortion providers in policy conversations at the local, state, and federal levels. Like any career path, nonprofit life has its challenges, but I am extremely grateful to do work in support of patients who need care, as well as the incredible health care providers who work so hard to make sure they get it. 

When I came to the Hill, my advisor Pat O’Neill told me to make sure that every semester I took one course that was totally unrelated to my major--that was the whole point of attending a liberal arts institution. I took her suggestion to heart, and as a result, my transcript reflects a bit of dabbling in everything from religious film studies to ceramics (bless Rebecca Murtaugh and her endless kindness and patience with my utter lack of artistic talent). I knew I didn’t want to work in these areas for my career, but I’m so glad I took those courses. I learned how to be flexible and adaptive when dealing with subject areas and media that were foreign to me, and I learned that the skills I was picking up as an English major were transferrable and could be applied to anything. 

My work in abortion policy calls on both those lessons all the time. In law school, you spend your entire first year learning how to write like a lawyer. Which is, of course, immensely helpful if you’re going on to write legal briefs. hen I’m drafting testimony against a bill that seeks to inhibit access to abortion care, it’s not the writing skills I learned in law school on which I draw, but rather, the skills I picked up at Hamilton. Legislators are not often swayed by dry arguments about the legality (or lack thereof) of the policy they’re trying to pass. Typically, they know full well when a bill is unconstitutional, and  that won’t stop them if they’re determined to make a political point. But if you can paint a picture with your words that makes them feel something, you might get somewhere. 

Those are skills that Hamilton gave me. And in the current administration, the adaptability that a liberal arts education provides is most definitely a boon—you never know what drastic new policy may come at you next, so you always have to be ready to apply your skills to something you’ve never seen before! Dealing with a ceaseless barrage of attacks on abortion access certainly goes on the list of things I don’t want to do, but I’m really glad I’m doing it. 

I’m grateful that Professor O’Neill encouraged me to use my time at Hamilton to explore as many subject areas as I could—it set me up to recognize the difference between the wrong course and the right course once I got to law school, and to keep figuring out what I don’t want as my career develops further. 

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