Joe Retzer

Honors College student Joe Retzer is heading to SLU Law with a full-tuition scholarship after his expected graduation from UMSL  in May. He become interested in politics during the lead up to the 2016 presidential election. (Photo by August Jennewein)

The miles clicked by steadily as the scenery changed from small towns to prairie to town for a mile or so and then back to nature studded with untended fields and wild berries. That first day, the group biked 60 miles south from Xenia, Ohio, almost to the Kentucky border. The next they cycled the 40-mile return.

The experience was novel for Joe Retzer, a University of Missouri–St. Louis student who had tagged along on his boss and friend David Naumann’s bike trip.

Upon the initial invite, Retzer had expressed doubts that he could bike 100 miles.

“‘Nah, once you get going, you can totally do it,’” Retzer recalled Naumann saying. “It was true. I was surprised, but it was just really painful. You get into the rhythm and it ends up alright.”

Getting into something challenging and cheerfully working through it despite the difficulty likely sounds familiar to anyone close to Retzer. Take, for example, his approach to prepping for the LSAT. Retzer thought of it as a job and studied four days a week for 10 months, telling himself those hours were labor with a hopeful future payout.

That grind paid off shortly before the winter holidays when he received a phone call from Michael Kolnik, dean of admissions at Saint Louis University School of Law, who let Retzer in on some good news: he’d been selected for the 1843 Scholars Program, a full-tuition scholarship.

Winning a scholarship – getting accepted into the program – had long been a goal and a dream for Retzer, who’d pleasantly shocked the admissions committee by telling them he’d only applied to SLU Law.

“I was super excited,” he said, noting he’d received the news while at work at David Naumann & Associates – pausing to let his family know – and returned to taking inventory.

Retzer’s interest in law began while in high school in Godfrey, Illinois, specifically during the buildup to the 2016 presidential election. He quickly became fascinated with the social media cultures, followings and personas of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders and started to follow along.

“It was really interesting to watch how many memes they would make and create their own controversy or political phenomena just by talking about it so much,” he said. “It got me interested in politics, seeing how much of an impact you can have on people, good or bad. There is a lot of power that comes with the spotlight that you have in that position.”

Simultaneously, Retzer began learning about the effect of other politics in the U.S., specifically how the political and legal systems leave wide swathes of the population behind, often meaning that low-income individuals face disproportionate jail sentences or stigmatization because they couldn’t afford legal representation.

Retzer decided that he’d try to be an advocate for underserved populations, maybe go to law school one day. However, when he enrolled at UMSL, he initially chose engineering as his major because of a long-held interest in science.

That didn’t last long.

Those first semesters at UMSL Retzer took some formative classes that informed his decision, many of them through the Pierre Laclede Honors College. That included “Intro to Comparative Politics,” an Honors “American Politics” and an Honors “Cultural Traditions” section focused on history.

“I realized that science was more of a pastime,” he said. “I switched my major over to political science.”

The classes he’s taken since then have only reinforced the decision. There’s been “Politics of Russia and Eastern Europe” taught by instructor Iuliia Fieser, whose Ukrainian heritage brought context to the texts. Another favorite was a class about civil liberties with Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus David Robertson that focused on Supreme Court decisions and the Bill of Rights.

“It made me love and be interested in learning about Supreme Court decisions and how they change the world,” Retzer said. “But the biggest moment that sticks out to me was in our first two classes. Probably the second day, he had us all take a poll about what civil liberties we believe everyone should have.

“Then there’s another question about what are the worst groups in society. Then he asked if you would give that group all the same civil liberties that you said everyone deserves. Almost everyone said, ‘No,’ which just shows how those ideas get tested in the real world, and it’s hard to balance it all out.”

That course, and others, fostered Retzer’s interest in constitutional law, which he’s looking forward to studying in more detail at SLU. He’s adamant however, that his future practice is nowhere near determined yet.

“One of the biggest things I’m excited about my first year at SLU is really getting to study different fields and decide what I’m going to do,” he said. “At the moment, there’s a lot of interests, but I don’t know where I’ll end up after law school.”

Retzer’s UMSL studies have been supported by a variety of scholarships including the Eugene J. Meehan Scholarship, the Evelyn and Stuart Symington Scholarship, the Leadership Council Scholarship for Arts and Sciences and a University Scholarship.

“Scholarships have helped me quite a bit to pay for school,” Retzer said. “Every scholarship I get is directly that amount of time that I don’t have to work to be able to go to school.”

Throughout school, Retzer has worked jobs at a loading dock, a bar and grill and then – by far the most formative – with David Naumann & Associates, a two-attorney law firm in Florissant, Missouri.

For the firm, Retzer’s done pretty much everything available to him as a non-lawyer. That’s meant filing, client outreach and legal research, his favorite. It’s been a great experience and has given him a sense of what the profession will be like.

“It’s a real experience of what so many attorneys do,” he said. “When you think about how normal people interact with the justice system, it’s usually something like this, where it’s a smaller law firm trying to handle a bunch of cases. I realized that you can help people in a lot of ways, and one of them can be by being a good community member who tries to help people out. It is cool to see how you can use the resources you have to make a difference.”

Jessica Rogen

Jessica Rogen