March 10, 2021
Alumni Spotlight: Emmett Witkovsky-Eldred
By Bill Brink
Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania is a small town about two hours east of Pittsburgh that, just like many similar small towns across Appalachia, lacks an abundance of legal counsel. Emmett Witkovsky-Eldred, a Hollidaysburg native and 2017 Carnegie Mellon alumnus who is currently in his second year in Yale Law School, plans to address the issue.
“It’s a town that doesn’t produce many people that go to a university like Carnegie Mellon, or certainly to the number one law school in the country,” Witkovsky-Eldred said. “To the extent that it produces anyone that does achieve that, those people almost never come back and serve their communities. They typically go to New York and DC and Los Angeles and San Francisco, those big legal markets that have high-paying jobs that have nothing to do with the people that formed me and supported me and raised me my entire life. I decided that I didn’t want to be a part of that.”
The combination of Carnegie Mellon’s reputation, the kindness of the people he met while visiting, and its emphasis on interdisciplinary study enticed Witkovsky-Eldred. That final part was of particular importance: He triple-majored in Creative Writing, Professional Writing, and Ethics, History, and Public Policy.
“I think most colleges advertise that to some degree or another,” he said. “But as soon as I got there, there are things like the fact that starting out freshman year, you’re intermingled with people from all sorts of departments and encouraged to make connections and friendships that expose you to different, substantive areas.”
Witkovsky-Eldred spent his childhood surrounded by books – his mom is a librarian and his dad a writer – and he initially wanted to write novels. When he arrived on campus, he discovered his passion for politics and advocacy and decided to apply his writing skills there.
A freshman year internship confirmed those passions. After classes ended at 3 p.m., Witkovsky-Eldred spent the next six hours making calls and knocking on doors for Allyson Schwartz, a member of the House of Representatives who was running for governor of Pennsylvania.
“She was someone I really, really believed in,” he said. “The connections that I made, with myself and really confirming that this was an area of society that I was so interested in being a part of, but also some of the relationships that I built during that campaign have continued to be really important to me.”
Those relationships paid off two years later, when Witkovsky-Eldred participated in the Carnegie Mellon University Washington Semester Program. They helped him land an internship in the office of Brendan Boyle, who replaced Schwartz as the representative of Pennsylvania’s 13th district.
“He was a freshman congressman at the time, so it was kind of like, you are getting into this congressional office at the time where I felt like being an intern could be the most impactful, because you are surrounded by people who themselves are learning the ropes and just getting started,” Witkovsky-Eldred said. “You got a lot of exposure as an intern to more substantive work.
The semester in Washington exposed Witkovsky-Eldred to the breadth of careers accessible with a law degree, and he became convinced that law school would give him the platform to engage in the advocacy he cared about.
“I’m very proud of my creative writing degree and my time in the creative writing program was very important to me.” Witkovsky-Eldred said. “I decided being a lawyer is a way to use those skills and that passion for writing in a pretty employable setting.”
Typically, Witkovsky-Eldred said, second-year law students intern with large law firms. He interviewed, but decided they weren’t for him. Instead, he’ll be spending his summer at the Pittsburgh office of the Community Justice Project, a civil legal aid organization specializing in legal advocacy to benefit low-income people in western and central Pennsylvania. After law school, he wants to come home and help communities without easy access to legal counsel, a burden which falls disproportionately on the poor, who average one civil legal issue per year.
“There are so many rural communities in Pennsylvania and all around the country that have almost no lawyers working there, so people who end up needing legal representation, especially in civil cases where there’s no constitutional guarantee of legal representation, just have nowhere to turn,” he said.
Witkovsky-Eldred advised students with any interest in politics or policy to apply for the Washington Semester Program, the opportunity that helped him discover his career calling.
“It is an unforgettable opportunity to gain unmatched professional experience, but it’s also pretty accessible to most students,” he said. “In that regard, it’s just a really great experience, and you get to take very interesting classes that you wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to take.”