As a competitor on the Millard West High School debate team, Ashton Koch began understanding how the world often worked against those without power or agency, and her undergraduate experience at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln solidified her desire to use her talents to help those who have been left behind.
“I’ve always had this philosophy, as I started embarking down this path to become a lawyer, that in society, those who have access to power have an obligation to use that power to help others who don’t have that same access,” Koch said.
She has her sights set on graduation May 14, but Koch is also preparing to start law school at Nebraska in the fall, to further her goals of serving others through immigration and humanitarian law.
Koch, an Honors student, majored in political science, global studies and French, with a human rights and humanitarian affairs minor. Her classes piqued her curiosity, and her internships gave her aspirations sturdy legs to stand on. Her sophomore year, she began interning for State Sen. Lynne Walz (District 15) of Fremont, where she worked behind the scenes, but with a front-row seat to the lawmaking process.
“I worked on legislative research, news releases and speeches,” Koch said. “It was an incredible experience to see the cooperation that goes on behind the legislation, beyond the floor debate, to have the end product of a bill.”
Her internship at the Capitol was cut short by COVID-19, when nearly everything shut down and largely reopened in a virtual world. Like all students and faculty, Koch made adjustments to online classes and saw some plans evaporate. Her planned summer study abroad trip was canceled, so Koch went looking for a new opportunity. She found it through the Forsythe Family Program on Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs’ Changemaker Internships.
“I interned with the Nebraska State Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyer Project in the summer of 2021, and I spent my summer mornings on the second floor of the Lancaster County Courthouse helping with the Tenant Assistant Project,” Koch said. “To this day, I think that internship was the most gratifying and validating experience I’ve had because I was directly working with attorneys, learning legal processes and making a difference.”
As an intern and volunteer, Koch interviewed tenants facing eviction, gathering information to help the volunteer attorneys with TAP go to bat for them during the hearings. While gratifying, the work was also often an “emotional roller coaster,” she said.
“It really opened my eyes to a part of society that I don’t think we like to think about or talk about. There were times it broke my heart because you’d hear stories from people about hardships because of the pandemic, or domestic violence situations, or biases landlords had toward people with different ability statuses,” Koch said. “There were also incredible moments when we were able to extend time for people or help them get rental assistance. And it was incredible to see a group of people who just wanted to volunteer and serve our community to help ensure these people had what should be a basic right to housing. The cards were literally always stacked against them, and we helped.”
On campus, Koch also found ways to be involved, even as the pandemic often prevented face-to-face interaction. She has worked as the outreach coordinator for the Women’s Center since August 2020. Her responsibilities shifted along with ever-changing COVID-19 restrictions, but she said it’s been beneficial to gain experience working with volunteers in different capacities and serving the campus community.
She also excelled in an area she didn’t know she could — academic research, writing and even presenting. Her Honors thesis, “Clash and Cooperation of Ecofeminism and Postmodern Feminism: the Intersection of Two Theories in Dystopic Literature,” drew rave reviews from her advisers, Julia Frengs and Erica Shauer. They encouraged her to present it at a conference, but Koch had a lot of trepidation.
“I thought, ‘absolutely not, no part of me is doing that,’” she said. “But I ended up doing one conference, and then another, and well, they were right. I hadn’t given myself enough credit. I think that presenting it at the conferences was so gratifying to me because I lived in this project for multiple years and was so passionate about it.
“Writing that thesis really enhanced my undergraduate education because I had sort of pigeonholed myself in international policy, international relations, and it allowed me to branch out into another area I was passionate about.”
Despite personal difficulties and letdowns in an academic career marred by a global pandemic, Koch found the silver linings.
“In March 2020, we had no idea what the extent of this would be, and continues to be,” she said. “There was a major learning curve for me, but I think it helped me learn new ways of organizing my time and work. It interrupted my study abroad plans, but at the same time, if I had studied abroad, I wouldn’t have found the volunteer lawyer project, and who knows if I would have applied to work at the Women’s Center. The pandemic threw curveballs for sure, but at the same time, it led me to a lot of opportunities that I don’t know if I would have found without it.”
In 10 years, Koch hopes to be using the strong foundation of her undergraduate years to serve the public in political office or as an immigration attorney.
“I’m passionate about the immigration system, that it needs to be reformed and there are so many ways we can make it better,” she said. “Right now, I’m focused on tangible change and applying that philosophy of helping people, and I truly want to make an impact on this world and make it a better place.
“Maybe in 10 years, I’ll be an attorney somewhere, maybe I’ll be running for office, but I hope I’ll have made some kind of positive change to make our systems better and more equitable.”