Former Prosecutor Returns to Admissions Office
WHEN HE WAS a Law School student, Jason Wu Trujillo ’01 never pictured himself as the head of the school’s admissions and financial aid office.
“The only career I ever prepared for was to be a prosecutor,” he said. “I came to law school knowing I wanted to be a prosecutor. The entire time I was in law school, I never really thought about doing anything other than being a prosecutor.”
But on July 1, Trujillo was promoted to senior assistant dean for admissions and financial aid, and is now tasked with heading the office that recruits potential students, decides whether they get in, and helps admitted students find ways to pay for their legal educations.
He replaces Susan Palmer, who left the Law School this summer to take a position as the associate dean for student affairs at the University of South Carolina School of Law.
Dean Paul Mahoney said he is deeply grateful for Palmer’s contribution to the school’s success, and that Trujillo is the perfect choice to replace her.
“Susan modernized our admissions operation and brought a personal warmth and elegance to all of her many interactions with applicants,” Mahoney said. “And I can’t imagine a better choice than Jason Trujillo as senior assistant dean for admissions and financial aid. Jason combines admissions experience, a broad appreciation for the institution’s goals and culture and a tremendous skill for communicating and working with other people. As a graduate of the Law School, he also understands the special qualities of this institution and its students.”
Trujillo recently discussed his new role and outlined some of his goals for the admissions and financial aid office.
Q: What changes do you see occurring in admissions during your tenure?
A: The biggest change I foresee is that in five years I want the entire admissions and financial aid process to be completely paperless. Right now it seems that’s easier to do in financial aid — in fact we’re almost there — but in terms of the admissions process, I want it to be completely paperless in five years. We need to be more efficient with our time and with our efforts. And to that end, I see one of my major roles being to make the admissions and financial aid office, and particularly the admissions processes, more efficient and more effective in everything we do.
I have this little saying, but people have really taken to it, so I think it’s effective: There’s a big distinction between work and effort. We put a little too much emphasis on effort at this point, and not enough on work. Pushing up against the wall requires a lot of effort but doesn’t really do anything, whereas pushing a box across a room is work, because something is accomplished.
For example, I think that some of the admissions travel could be cut back a little bit, because we can do more effective outreach via e-mail and be more responsive to people who actually contact us.
I think we’ve got a good thing going. It needs to be tweaked and needs to be more efficient, and we need to get behind the new technology, but all of that is moving in the right direction.
Q: How does evolving technology affect the admissions process?
A: In the old way of doing things, you or one of your admissions officers would go and fl y out to the University of California at Berkeley, for example. We’d get on a plane from Charlottesville and we’d go to Washington, D.C., and then finally to Berkeley. We would give out brochures that we’ve spent a lot of money producing. And we’d stand behind a table for three hours or so and answer questions, most of which could be answered simply by looking at our website. And some of the applicants now say things like, “Oh, I don’t need a brochure because I’ve seen that online.” That’s totally different from a few years ago, when people were dependent on paper.
Q: What are some of the changes already underway?
A: Next year we’re going to send out all decisions via e-mail, with the exception of offers. So if we make you an offer, of course we will send you a very nice letter on very nice letterhead. But we will use e-mail to notify people who we don’t make an offer to or people we put on the waiting list.
We tested that in part this year. We are slightly overenrolled for the fall class, and it’s pretty clear that we aren’t going to be able to take anyone else from the waiting list. So we released people from the waiting list via e-mail. Previously, we had done that by paper. But I think people would prefer speed over formality.
Another thing that we are going to do is a lot more analysis as part of our admissions process. We need to see who we’re admitting, what messages resonate with them, and what we need to do to get them here. We’re going to try to use technology to do more work with less effort.
Q: What career path did you take after law school?
A: Everyone always asks, “Well, how did you end up in admissions?” The answer is that it was completely by accident. The only career I ever prepared for in law school was to be a prosecutor, and that’s what I did when I left here.
I was a prosecutor for a couple of years near my hometown in Bergen County, New Jersey. Then I saw in the alumni magazine that the school was looking for a director of public service. I applied more out of curiosity than anything else. The next thing I knew, I was sitting across the table from [then-Dean] John Jeffries, and he was saying “Well, when will you be joining us?”
I really loved Virginia, I really loved this area, and I said to myself, “I’m going to give it a shot. If for some reason it doesn’t agree with me, or I don’t agree with them and they don’t like me, I can always go back to being a prosecutor back home in New Jersey.”
I was the director of public service for one year, and I was asked to move over to become the director of admissions. I admitted three classes, the classes of ‘08 ‘09 and ‘10. So last year was the year in which I was involved in the admission of every student in the building.
John Jeffries approached me last year and said that he was transitioning out as dean, and that he needed some help in the dean’s office. I was promoted to assistant dean and moved over to the dean’s office for a year.
And then Dean Paul Mahoney approached me and said that it was his desire to reassign me to admissions upon the departure of Susan Palmer, and he promoted me to senior assistant dean for admissions and financial aid.
Q: How is it working with the administrators and staff in your office?
A: I was on the hiring committee that hired both Courtenay Seabring Ebel, the director of admissions for recruitment, and Jason Dugas, the director of admissions for communications and outreach, so I’m certainly happy they are here. Jason Dugas and I were classmates, and Courtenay was two classes behind us. And we have Cindy Burns, who is the director of financial aid and does a wonderful job.
On the staff side, Holly Bennett is the backbone of the entire admissions operation and Sandy Harris is the backbone of the entire financial aid operation. Without them I’d pretty much have to quit.
Q: What do you look for in prospective students?
A: LSAT and GPA are obviously extraordinarily important, but the admissions process is definitely not mechanical. We will also look at letters of recommendation; we want to know how these people behave in the classroom and how they’ve performed at their job. Personal statements are important. I like to see how people write and what they can contribute to the environment here.
You could certainly fill the class with people with very high LSAT scores and very high GPAs who would not contribute to the Virginia environment. I always tell people when I go out on the road or when I speak to students here that having great grades and a great LSAT score are necessary, but not sufficient, criteria for getting in here. Our incoming students are students for three years, and then they are alums for 50 years. So I always say, “Do I want this person wearing the Virginia brand out there in the legal profession?”
When I was out there as a litigator, it was very obvious that certain attorneys look back on their law school years fondly, and certain attorneys look back on their law school years with horror. And every Virginia grad I met really looked back fondly, and that’s something that I’d like to continue in the future. Virginia Law has what I consider to be a very unique identity among the national law schools, and preserving that character is something that’s very important to me. We have the most loyal alumni in the country, and I think there’s a reason for that.