Jacob Smiles ’01 is an Administrative Judge in the Denver office of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) – and not the schoolteacher he thought he’d become when he entered Cornell in the 1990s.

A freshman writing seminar changed all that.

“The EEOC enforces a variety of federal civil-rights laws that prohibit discrimination in employment,” Smiles explains. “That includes discrimination in employment on a range of bases – such as race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, or age.”

Most people are familiar with the litigation aspects of the EEOC and the high-profile cases in federal court. That’s not what Administrative Judge Smiles does, however. Rather, he hears employment discrimination cases from federal employees, millions of whom are covered by the federal civil rights statutes but whose cases are handled through a separate process.

You won’t see Smiles’ name in the news, because federal employees’ cases are confidential at the hearing level. But the human affairs entanglements are no less challenging to adjudicate, Smiles says.

“For example, if a co-worker is treating one of their colleagues of a different race very badly, and that person doesn’t treat people of other races that way, we try to figure out: What is the basis of this? Is it racial harassment or just a personality conflict? Or if a person is terminated, was it because of their sex or disability, or simply because of their job performance? One of the most challenging tasks for an administrative judge is evaluating the evidence and witness credibility to determine causation in these situations.”

After Cornell, Smiles earned a law degree at Washington University in St. Louis; spent a semester working as a legal fellow for then- Sen. Hillary Clinton; clerked for judges in a U.S. District Court and a Court of Appeals; handled business litigation for a large, international law firm; and served five years as an attorney at the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

His job there was to enforce laws that give students equal access to schools and education – “Education civil rights was always the area where I was most passionate,” he says – but something was missing. The EEOC judgeship “struck me as a unique opportunity, one that was more intellectually challenging, while still allowing me to continue with my passion for civil rights.”

The son of schoolteachers, Smiles remembers his best job at Cornell, working as a research assistant in the Early Social Development Laboratory of C. Cybele Raver.

“For three years I assisted with social science research on four- and five-year-olds’ ability to self-regulate through emotional soothing techniques,” explains Smiles, who now has a seven- and eight- year-old of his own to study.

One influential course was Human Bonding, taught by Cindy Hazan, Associate Professor in the Department of Human Development, which covered the science of interpersonal relationships. Another was Family Law and Social Policy, taught by Tracy Mitrano, Cornell’s former Director of Internet Culture Policy and Law. Then came a class called Race, Power, and Privilege, co-taught by the late Donald Barr, a Professor in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management, and James Turner, Professor Emeritus of African and African American Politics and Social Policy at Cornell. But that’s not where Smiles’ passion for civil rights began.

“Like a lot of other undergraduates, I had the sense I wanted to help people. I wanted a career that was for the general good of society,” he says. So Smiles signed up for a freshman writing seminar on the civil rights movement, one of hundreds of topics available through the John S. Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines and was “absolutely blown away and interested and shocked by it. It really got me on the path to where I am.”

Today, if a student were to ask advice, the administrative judge might opine: “Make sure whatever career you’re doing involves something you are passionate about. You’re likely to be happier and successful if what you’re doing is something you care about. Human Ecology is a great place to do that – assuming you like people and care about helping others.”

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