Southwestern students are encouraged to explore their many interests during their time on campus. The University ingrains the philosophy of Paideia early on, seeking to instill the lifelong pursuit of learning and creating innovative solutions to complex problems. When Natalie DeCesare ’19 entered Southwestern, she thought she would be an environmental science major because she appreciated the natural world and wanted to protect it. However, once she started getting involved with organizations and jobs on campus, like Students for Environmental Activism and Knowledge (SEAK) and working in the Office of Admission and Center for Career & Professional Development, she began to figure out what motivated her, helping others. Eventually, she would declare her major in political science with a minor in history.

As she navigated through courses, DeCesare became more politically active and participated in political campaign management, grassroots activism, and campus civic engagement. She thought she would pursue a career in managing political campaigns when she graduated. However, when she interned at a law firm in Austin, her mentors encouraged her to take the LSAT. They saw something in DeCesare that she hadn’t seen in herself yet; someone who could use their passion for helping others meaningfully.

“I never wanted to be a litigator, but I knew that if I got my J.D., it would put me in a better position to help people, and I wanted that responsibility,” DeCesare said.

After passing the LSAT, DeCesare enrolled in St. Mary’s University School of Law in the fall of 2019. When the pandemic began during her second semester, her life, like students worldwide, drastically changed. She saw how the pandemic affected her fellow students, especially non-traditional students like parents and older students. Their personal lives bled into their law school life like never before. She noticed she excelled academically while her peers didn’t and felt this was fundamentally unfair, so she worked to establish a peer mentorship program.

“It wasn’t a fair assessment of our merit, and it didn’t sit well with me,” ​​DeCesare recalls. “So I worked with the dean of students to get a peer mentorship program institutionalized so that an L1 student can opt into getting paired up with an L2 or L3 student mentor.”

The mentors don’t serve as a tutor but rather someone who a first-year student can turn to for advice in navigating law school. Someone to show them the way. Although ​​DeCesare has graduated, she still volunteers her time to St. Mary’s law students as a mentor.

Along with mentoring law students, ​​DeCesare also participates in the Southwestern Alumni Network Mentoring Program. Every semester, she is assigned a new student with whom she assists and guides through academic decisions, including what to do after graduation. She even aspires to create a pipeline between Southwestern and St. Mary’s for pre-law students. It’s simply another way her compassion for others shines through.

DeCesare’s passion for helping others doesn’t stop at mentorship. In 2021, she was selected as part of the initial cohort of Notley Fellows in San Antonio. She is also the youngest fellow ever accepted into the program. The two-year fellowship provides a mix of programming, professional development, and immersive projects that address a community issue through a project of their choosing.

For her Notley project, DeCesare has combined her law education and desire to assist others in establishing a nonprofit organization, Justice Equity Foundation (JEF), within her current company. JEF seeks to educate the San Antonio community and the legal system on dealing with underprivileged litigants and clearing criminal records. The nonprofit services are very similar to its parent company; however, it’s free of charge.

DeCarese recently took the Bar exam and works as a lawyer at EasyExpunctions. The startup provides its customers with a straightforward and cost-effective solution to clearing criminal records, seeks to inform and empower people interacting with the criminal justice system, and creates a fast track to justice.

In reflecting on her time at Southwestern, DeCarese said she misses the collaborative interdisciplinary aspects of a liberal arts education, so she has utilized the Paideia philosophy far beyond the walls of the University. From working as a mentor to students to creating a nonprofit to working toward establishing a pipeline from SU to St. Mary’s for pre-law students, DeCearse is a passionate advocate for her community.

“If I could tell current students anything, it would be to get involved in everything, make mistakes, and figure out what really motivates you.” DeCarese advises.