Alex Straka, a first-year UW Law student, has received the Stearns-Shaw Scholarship.
The three-year scholarship is given biennally to an incoming law student who demonstrates a commitment to defending the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people.
Denis Stearns, a 1992 UW Law graduate, endowed the award with his husband, Thomas Shaw, in memory of his mother, Julie Stearns. He says his major gift is an investment in the Law School’s long commitment to building a diverse, inclusive community.
“My hope is that the recipients of this scholarship will serve the LGBT community as leaders and change-agents, while also serving their law school, by acting as representatives of the many, many positive things that make UW Law a place where leaders and change-agents are fostered and supported,” Stearns says.
Straka earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and economics and a master’s degree in international public affairs, both from the UW. Before coming to law school, he accepted a fellowship — and later, a position as a research analyst — at the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission, where he found himself doing policy work on issues like college access and success.
Working in Oregon gave him the opportunity to reflect on what it means to be an LGBT advocate: “The Oregon HECC focuses on an equity lens, so policy workers were looking at how race, ethnicity and income affect academic opportunities and degree attainment. That’s where I realized that, when it comes to the LGBT community, the data isn’t there.”
And without data, Straka adds, it’s hard for administrators to understand what challenges and opportunities LGBT students face. Accurate data that reflect the experiences of its LGBT community helps ensure that a school’s policies and resources address student needs.
Straka plans on continuing in public service after he receives his law degree, and on bringing this awareness to his future job. “Professionally, whether I wind up working on housing or education or anti-discrimination policy, I see myself taking a leadership role, pushing for more data-driven policy work and insight,” he says.
In addition to Straka’s law school studies, he works as a teaching assistant in political science at UW-Madison. In this role, he runs student discussion groups for an American government course, where he works to create an atmosphere for open, civil discourse. He has also joined UW Law’s chapter of QLaw, a student organization that serves the LGBT community and its allies.
Straka feels strongly that standing up for issues affecting the LGBT community means showing up when support is needed, and communicating respectfully and honestly. “It doesn’t have to mean being the loudest person in the room. For me, in my policy work, being an advocate means really being cognizant about the gaps in data where LGBT and other communities are concerned.”
All of this is good news for Stearns, who says he's gratified to see Stearns-Shaw scholars paying it forward.
“I am so heartened that the Law School has awarded the scholarship to someone as exemplary and committed as Alex Straka. He’s proof that the endowment is accomplishing exactly what I had hoped,” he says.
Submitted by Tammy Kempfert on January 18, 2017
This article appears in the categories: Articles