College of Law

Student perseveres to complete degree despite obstacles

Posted December 4, 2017

The past few years of Zach Campbell’s life have been a lesson in perseverance.

As the son of divorced parents, he spent much of his childhood divided between two states—Tennessee, where his father was a farmer; and Texas, where his mother worked in corporate communications with American Airlines.

Campbell, who will graduate this month with a law degree from UT’s College of Law, describes his mother as the more practical, business-minded parent, while his father possesses an undeniable sense of adventure.

Neither of his parents completed college degrees, but his mother was committed to seeing her son excel with his education.

“My mom has always told me, ‘you need to go get your education first and then you can do whatever you want,’” he said. During his undergraduate days, he remembers “she’d always escort me to the gate at the airport because she was always afraid I was going to run and go do something fun.”

It is because of his mother’s commitment and encouragement that Campbell says he has persevered.

During the past four years, he’s endured two torn ACLs, surgery to repair them, and complications with the second surgery. But the most overwhelming challenge Campbell has faced has been the death of his mother who in February unexpectedly passed away while she slept. She died on the weekend of her son’s 25th birthday.

“People have been far kinder to me about it than I deserve,” he said. “It’s such a horrible experience, but you have to try to learn something from it. I just can’t be debilitated with it.”

Following his mother’s death, Campbell took a week off of school but then quickly jumped back into his study routines.

He’s worked with the college’s Legal Clinic and assisted with preparations for the fall expungement clinic, where in one day UT faculty and students offered legal counsel to more than 500 members of the Knoxville community.

“Zach is a student who has risen to the occasion,” Legal Clinic Professor Joy Radice said. “He has a real commitment to being here and serving people, and he’s really touched me with his dedication.”

Campbell says it’s because of his mother’s influence that he strives, like her, to appreciate people’s differences and to work with “streamlined precision and a minimalist approach to resources.”

That philosophy, and the misfortune of his cousin, who suffered a debilitating injury in a traffic accident, influenced him and classmate Jessica Baker to create a handbook for individuals confronting the Social Security disability system. Professor Becky Jacobs oversaw their work in her Community Lawyering course.

“The handbook has been disseminated widely,” Jacobs said. “Their work has had an impact.”

Both the Tennessee Bar Association and the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services praised the handbook as a public education resource, Jacobs said. It has been provided to a number of Tennessee legal organizations including the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands, West Tennessee Legal Services, and the Legal Aid Society of East Tennessee.

“Zach is just remarkable,” Jacobs said.

Now that Campbell is days away from graduation, he’s giving careful thought to his next steps.

“I have always been torn between the world of global commerce and community service—one stimulated my mind and the other touched my heart,” he said. “My goal in life is to serve both.”

For now, he has accepted a position with KPMG in its Washington, D.C. metro office and will begin working as an associate in mergers and acquisitions tax practice.

While he’s already traveled abroad extensively with trips to India, France, England, South America, China, Australia, Indonesia, and Africa, he said hiking the entire Appalachian Trail and visiting Antarctica are on his bucket list.

But perhaps more importantly, he’ll now have the time he needs to come to terms with his mother’s death, having completed the education she insisted he attain.

“I’ve never been in the real world, and now I’m starting my life without my mom—my biggest support squad,” he said. “These past few months have been the toughest, but I think with all I’ve been through, Tennessee is the only place I could have gone that would have supported me through this.

“UT has been a great place for me to be.”