A Student of the World Before she even arrived at Willamette, Erin Tofte, a member of the Class of 2011, had a deeper understanding of developing nations than many students. As a Peace Corps volunteer, she helped build wells and latrines for a village in Nicaragua. In college, she majored in societal injustice and minored in human rights. She speaks fluent Spanish and has worked on four asylum cases through Willamette’s International Human Rights Clinic. Now, as she prepares to graduate, Tofte hopes to find a job dealing with immigration or refugee issues — but not necessarily as a lawyer. Eventually, she wants to become an ambassador. “I always had a strong sense of right and wrong and helping people who couldn’t stand up for themselves,” Tofte says. “I really appreciate what the United States can do for other countries and I feel I can represent the United States better abroad than I can here.”
“Everyone in the area respected Erin not only for caring for other community members but for being part of the community. Erin has a very bright and vibrant soul.”
“It’s a rare case that I find a student who can be a role model for me…She’s a role model when it comes to patience, compassion and empathy.” Tofte grew up in a small town in Washington six miles south of the Canadian border, in an area dominated by cattle farmers and apple orchards. She was on welfare for a time while her single mom held the family together. To put herself through the University of Washington, Tofte worked summers as a firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service. “On a gut level, I don’t like people judging other people,” she says. “Everyone deserves a fair chance to have an education and to do what they want to do and live the way they want to live.” Tofte’s mom got her master’s degree while Tofte was young; she says that reinforced the idea that education was important. Growing up in a small town made her want to see the rest of the world, so she joined the Peace Corps after college. It was a life-changing experience, daily life reduced to simple tasks: Spending two hours to obtain water from the village well; trying to make herself understood in a language she didn’t speak fluently; coping with the relaxed attitude about arriving on time for meetings. When she returned to the U.S., the array of choices at the supermarket so overwhelmed her that she begged her mother to come get her because she couldn’t make a decision. “Erin really took her Peace Corps service seriously,” says Jason Skipton, a Peace Corps colleague who still keeps in touch.
At Willamette, Tofte joined the board of the Willamette University Public Interest Law Project as a first-year law student. She also serves as vice president of her class and is on staff of the Willamette University Journal of International Law and Dispute Resolution. And she’s pursuing a certificate in International Human Rights Law. In her work with the law school’s International Human Rights Clinic, Tofte has handled four asylum cases — remarkable for a student, says clinic director Gwynne Skinner. The cases included a Mexican man under persecution for his sexual orientation and a Russian family seeking asylum because of their religious beliefs. “She has a great talent for working with clients,” Skinner says. “She’s interested, empathetic, a problem solver — she’s a real standout. “It’s a rare case that I find a student who can be a role model for me,” Skinner says. “She’s a role model when it comes to patience, compassion and empathy.” Although her plans after law school and the bar exam aren’t firm right now, Tofte’s classmate Lauren Askeland, a third-year law student, says she’s sure Tofte will make a difference in the world. “She’s not interested in the traditional path people take after law school,” Askeland says. “She’ll find her own path.”
Spring 2011 | 28
A Man for the Times: Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul J. De Muniz and six Willamette grads talk about their careers on the bench