Colleen Costello graduated from Pennsylvania State University Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle, PA, and is a human rights attorney in Washington, D.C.
Looking back on the professional benefits of the philosophy major several years after graduating, Colleen observes:
“My philosophy studies have been immensely beneficial to me in my post-graduate studies and in my career. As a law student, I relied heavily on my philosophical training—particularly in logic—to map out legal arguments on exams and in moot court. As a human rights attorney and government affairs associate (which involves legislative and executive branch advocacy), those same skills are very helpful when seeking support and buy-in from lawmakers, executive branch officials, and other organizations.”
A 2012 survey of philosophy alumni over the previous 15 years saw a high proportion of similar success stories from people responding.
How has philosophy prepared you for and/or guided you to this career choice?
After graduating from college, I matriculated to law school in the fall of 2004, where I studied International Law/ Human Rights Law. My study of philosophy at Washington College allowed me to nurture and expand my desire for knowledge. As a law student, I was expected to question the law, as well as to understand the fundamental roots of it. Majoring in Philosophy taught me to examine ideas by questioning and reflecting on them. Additionally, the structure of my philosophy classes was such that the students were consistently expected to discuss the texts and to defend their own positions. This provided a very strong foundation for my study of law. Even now, in my career as a human rights advocate and attorney, I continue to appreciate and rely upon the exceptional education I received from the professors of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Washington College.
I was a bit disappointed that my high school education never offered the opportunity to examine philosophy in general, and ancient & classical texts in particular. I wanted to learn more about these subjects, and felt that I should have, at the very least, a provisional background knowledge of the writings of philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. Because I love to learn, the study of philosophy seemed that it would provide a perfect correlation with my interests. After I took my first philosophy course, I was hooked, and immediately knew that I wanted to declare a major in Philosophy.
What area of philosophy interests you most and why?
I suppose, because of my interest in classical texts, not only in philosophy but also in literature and political doctrine, I am most interested in ancient philosophy. Through my senior thesis, I was able to examine some of the very fundamental philosophical foundations of the Constitution. This experience, along with the knowledge I have acquired and observations that I have made in my classes, has demonstrated that the history and background of nearly any issue will have an impact on its future. Perhaps this is why I love ancient philosophy, then—because I can trace the development of philosophical ideas to see how ancient philosophy might be analogous to modern philosophy.
What is unique about the philosophy department at Washington College that distinguishes it from other departments/majors?
As a student graduating with a dual major as well as a minor, it has been very interesting to see how different and varied are the actions and attitudes of professors and students from department to department. In general, I would say that both the students and professors in the Philosophy department are quite amicable, and are very relaxed. At the same time, they are great about encouraging their students to excel, on every level. I have found that this department has been extremely supportive of me throughout my four years here, not only in class, but also outside of class and in my preparation for law school.
What is the topic of your senior thesis?
My senior thesis is a combined thesis, structured to meet the requirements of both the Philosophy and Political Science departments. It is an examination of the judicial protection of the philosophical foundations of American law. In essence, I have examined the philosophical influences that helped to shape the political philosophy of the Founding Fathers. In particular, my focus was on natural law and natural law philosophers. I then took my study of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution one step further by focusing on a few select Supreme Court cases, in order to determine whether the Supreme Court has maintained this natural law philosophy that was such a large component of the political phliosophy during the time of our Founding Fathers.
Have you participated in any special activities, internships, clubs, field trips, etc. that have helped you get more out of the major?
Because philosophy is such a broad, wide-reaching topic that affects our everyday existence—from the way we think and perceive things, to the laws which govern us (and the political philosophy behind those laws)—every day, for me, is an opportunity to apply what I have learned. Specifically, I can say that my activities with the Washington College Amnesty International group, as well as with the Student Government Association, have helped me to better understand others. I feel that I now have a greater appreciation for, and understanding of, different opinions and views that others might hold. Philosophy has taught me to question everything, not out of doubt, but out of a desire to understand that which is being questioned.