Jillian Gardner knew she wanted to do “more.” It was calling that became increasingly resonant as the New Jersey native completed her undergraduate studies at St. Joseph’s University, where she minored in Theology along with Justice and Ethics in the Law.
“St. Joseph’s instilled in me the beliefs in the Magis, or ‘more,” Gardner says. “I enjoyed studying how the law is used to do ‘more' for communities and social justice.” With this strong foundation, she dedicated her first year out of college to service and vocational discernment, working as a Young Adult Volunteer in an alternative incarceration program for juvenile offenders in Miami, FL.
It proved to be a pivotal experience, and Gardner soon set her sights on attending law school and becoming a public defender. St. John’s, she says, was the clear choice. “My father is an alumnus, so I was already part of the St. John’s Law family. But I chose to enroll because of the Law School’s commitment to public interest, and because of the support students get from alumni, faculty, and administrators to pursue a life of public service.”
From the start of her time at St. John’s, Gardner was drawn to the work of its Public Interest Center, which sponsors programs and initiatives for students who want to help underserved and marginalized individuals and communities. The Center's signature annual event, the Public Interest Auction, raises significant funds to support summer public interest fellowships, service trips, and other public service activities at the Law School. Gardner has been instrumental in making it a success for the last two years.
“My 2L year, I had the honor of co-chairing the Public Interest Auction and organized more than 100 volunteers who solicited over 100 auction items,” she shares. “We were able to fund 35 summer fellowships with the proceeds. Now I serve on the Center’s student executive board as Associate Director of Fundraising and continue to support the Auction and other efforts in that role.”
Gardner was also twice the beneficiary of the Public Interest Auction’s success, receiving a fellowship to work at the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender the summer after her 1L year and another to work at Brooklyn Defender Services—which was founded by St. John’s Law alumna Lisa Schreibersdorf ‘84—this past summer. She rounded out her hands-on public interest experience as a 2L in the Law School’s Economic Justice Clinic and as a 3L extern at Federal Defenders of New York.
All these experiences, Gardner says, were formative and helped her turn a passion for social justice into a career that will enable her to use her St. John’s Law degree to uplift others. She plans to work full-time as a public defender at the Legal Aid Society of Nassau County after graduation and couldn’t be happier. “I went to law school to do more, and I’m so excited to be more and grow more as a public advocate. It's a career goal accomplished, and I'm very grateful for that.”