young alumni profile

Greg Pennington

Greg Pennington: From Dishwasher to the Department of Justice

At a time when many of his classmates were graduating from high school and preparing to embark on their college careers, Greg Pennington’s future was marked by uncertainty. He had dropped out of high school following the passing of his father and was washing dishes at a restaurant to get by, spending his days and nights elbow deep in soap and water.

Although committed to doing whatever was necessary to make a living, Pennington couldn’t fight the urge to find something more fulfilling—something he was passionate about.

Pennington took the GED and, the day he found out that he passed, he enrolled in a local community college near Tampa, Fla. He eventually transferred to the University of South Florida where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Political Science in 2008.

It was in college that Pennington discovered his passion for the law. At the urging of a professor, he applied to law schools across the country. Soon after, with multiple acceptance letters in hand, he had a difficult decision to make. According to Pennington, though, one law school stood out among the rest.

Pennington packed his bags and moved 1000 miles to Morgantown where he joined the Class of 2012 at the West Virginia University College of Law. It was a decision that fulfilled his expectations in every way.

“From classes to clinical experience to extracurricular activities, WVU was amazing in every aspect,” he said. “Simply put, I don’t have a barometer to gauge what kind of experience I would have had at another law school because I only attended one. But that one was a great law school.”

At WVU Law, Pennington explored several areas of law that could lead him to a rewarding career. It was the Immigration Law Clinic, though, that opened his eyes to what his future would have in store.

Working in the clinic, Pennington nurtured his new-found interest in immigration law and saw it all the way through to a career opportunity.

Since September 2013, he has been working as a Judicial Law Clerk in Texas for the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in the Harlingen Immigration Court Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR). There, Pennington provides legal research and advice laws to immigration court judges.

“I did not know anything about immigration law when I entered law school, but it is something that continues to fascinate me,” Pennington said. “It is for this reason that I love my job so much.”

Pennington earned his job when he was accepted into the DOJ’s prestigious Honors Program. It’s the only way that entry-level attorneys can get into the DOJ.

Every year, just a handful of law school students are accepted to the Honors Program. Selection based on a combination of factors, including demonstrated commitment to government service, academic achievement, law review or moot court experience, clinical experience, and extracurricular activities that relate to the work of the DOJ.

For Pennington, getting accepted into the program required special dedication. As a third-year law student preparing to graduate and weighing his options, he learned that he did not get into the Honors Program. Luckily, he accepted an offer for a federal clerkship from Judge James Seibert in Wheeling, West Virginia.

Pennington did not giving up on his dream to join the DOJ. Excited about his federal clerkship, he also knew it could be the added experience he needed to bolster his resume for the Honors Program.

“I accepted the offer from Judge Seibert the day he made it, but with the clerkship being only one year, I already knew I would file another application for the Honors Program,” he said. “I guess I could have been deflated by not getting an interview the first time around. It is a very competitive program, but something just drove me to apply again.”

In his experience with Judge Seibert, Pennington said he learned a very important personal lesson: to embrace his past and the way it shaped his character.

“I used to be ashamed of the fact that I dropped out of high school and spent several years of my life working dead-end jobs, but Judge Seibert made me be proud of those things,” Pennington said.

Seibert’s advice and Pennington’s educational and professional experiences paid off and his second application to the Honors Program was successful. According to Pennington, he could barely contain his excitement when received the official word that he would be joining a team of legal professionals at the DOJ.

“I screamed. Well, I waited until I got off the phone, but then I screamed,” he said. “It took everything I had to not immediately call and tell my wife, but I waited until later that night after my daughter went to bed. We celebrated with some champagne and immediately started planning the next stage in our lives and our move 1,700 miles south of Morgantown.”

Just months since Pennington and his family made that move, he is already planning to gain more experience at the DOJ in pursuit of his ultimate career goals.

“I want to stay with the federal government, and I would like to continue working in immigration,” he said. “Ironically, I see a third application for the Honors Program in my future. Not only does the Honors Program hire for the immigration courts, it also hires for the Board of Immigration Appeals, among others. It would be an honor for me to be able to work for either of these organizations, either in the academic setting of the BIA in interpreting the nation’s immigration laws, or with the Office of Immigration Litigation in defending the laws and agency action in federal court.”

A decade ago, Pennington was trying to make ends meet, unable to envision what his future would hold.

“Now, I have a beautiful family and have been successful in my professional endeavors,” he said. “I hope that I can be an inspiration to others, especially people in a similar situation that I was in, whom think that there is no future for a high school dropout.”

Greg Pennington ‘12 is a Judicial Law Clerk with the Harlingen (Texas) Immigration Court, Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), U.S. Department of Justice.

Greg was interviewed for this article in his personal capacity by Kaylyn Christoper, and the views expressed herein are solely his views and do not necessarily represent positions of EOIR or the U.S. Department of Justice.