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Our Alumni

Deanna Paul, ’04, Prosecutor & Journalist

Where is home at the moment?
I've been living in New York for almost ten years.
What is your current position/career? How did you come to work in this field?
For the last six years I worked as a New York City prosecutor in the Special Victims Bureau, handling child homicides, violent crimes against children, domestic violence and other felony crimes. This fall, I began attending Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
It may sound like I’m ditching one career for another, but I’m not! My legal career has certainly shaped the stories I want to continue to tell. Although it took time for me to appreciate the similarities between the work of a prosecutor and that of a journalist, both begin with flawless reporting; both exist in a world of constant observation and curated storytelling. Like a journalist, a trial attorney unpacks other people’s stories and re-tells them through facts, often speaking for those who cannot. Bringing with me an intimate knowledge of the criminal justice system, I hope this next step allows me to grow as an author and shine the spotlight on important stories too often left untold.
What educational path did you follow?  
After graduating, I received my undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania and then attended Fordham University School of Law, where I have been an adjunct professor of trial advocacy. I knew I wanted to build a career that merged my in-court experience with writing and, though a full-time attorney, there was rarely a time I wasn’t enrolled in creative and non-fiction writing courses. Now I’m back at graduate school to do the same.
What is most rewarding about the work you do? 
Being a prosecutor exposed me to the worst of what people can do to strangers and to those they love. I learned that silence is rarely neutral, especially when many are either taught their voices do not matter or are kept quiet through violence, force and threats. For many, using one’s voice and speaking the truth can be the bravest form of resistance.
The most rewarding aspect of my work has been the ability to give some of those people a voice. Knowing what "justice" feels like is not something many experience in a lifetime and I feel truly fortunate to have played a small role doing justice while validating the experiences of my witnesses.
What is the biggest challenge you face?
At my former job:
Special Victims is the only bureau where you have to prove a crime was committed because the victim’s word isn’t enough. We see people at their darkest moments and confront the crimes that jurors don't want to believe people are capable of perpetrating. And even though there are days we come back from court, close our office doors and cry a little, or feel like the system has failed, we wake up the next morning and continue to help our victims by doing the best that we can.
The biggest challenge I’m facing right now is myself. Making a major life change can be truly terrifying. Even if you’ve brought the change on yourself, the unknown isn’t any less scary. Self-doubt is contagious, which makes it easy to lose sight of the things we want. But, how we respond to those emotions is always a choice. I’m focused on getting out of my own way, embracing the uncertainty and telling myself that it's okay to take risks. Without them we would never learn the things we’re able to achieve.
What is one essential academic or life skill you honed at Scheck Hillel?
As a proud Thespian alumna, the list of academic and life skills I learned from Lillian and Dr. Michael Andron* (and the entire HCT family) could go on for pages: It’s okay to be outside of your comfort zone; cherish compliments when you get them; there are no small parts, only small actors; always laugh out loud because the audience can’t see you smiling.
If I was forced to narrow it down to a most essential, transferable skill, Michael and Lillian taught me about time management and hard work ethic. Because both had become so ingrained and second nature, I didn’t realize it at the time, but hard work ethic and time management are necessary life skills that I was lucky to learn early on from the Androns.
What is your favorite Hillel memory?
There was one night during the fall semester of my senior year that felt, quite literally, like the culmination of my life. It was Saturday, December 13th, 2003. On Friday, December 12, one day earlier, I had learned that I was accepted early decision to University of Pennsylvania. The next night, Saturday, December 13, was my 17th birthday and my final performance in the fall musical, “Annie Get Your Gun.” The show that marked the end of my high-school theater career and I was playing Annie Oakley. My family and friends were all in the audience. During curtain call my cast mates wheeled out a cake and, together with the audience, sang “Happy Birthday” to me. I just remember feeling so at home and loved, surrounded by the people and experiences that, cumulatively, up to that moment in my life had meant the most to me.
What is your advice for future Hillel students who might consider a career in your field?
So often our path is chosen out of fear disguised as practicality. What we really want seems impossibly out of reach, or silly to expect, so we don't dare to try. Don’t underestimate what you can handle, be fearless and go after what you want.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
People learn how treat you based on what you accept from them.
Last memorable book/podcast/talk/blog you read/heard.
Can I mention two? Paul Kalamithi's memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, and Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang, the author of the story that “Arrival” was adapted from. The latter is a book of short stories, all of which will — or, at least, should be — turned into full lengths too.
*Lillian and Dr. Michael Andron were members of Scheck Hillel’s faculty through 2007.