Alumnus of the Month: Dena Sacco

posted in: 70th anniversary, alumni | 0

American Fulbright Grantee, 1993-4
European Community Law, College of Europe, Bruges


Ms. Dena Sacco is an Assistant Director for J.D. Advising in the Office of Career Services at Harvard Law School, a position she has held since July 2017. Previously, she taught in the Cyberlaw Clinic at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, as well as in the International and Legal Research & Writing Programs at Harvard Law School. She also worked as an Assistant United States Attorney in Boston, and at a law firm and as a Counsel in the Office of Policy Development of the United States Department of Justice in Washington, DC.

Ms. Sacco was a Fulbright scholar in 1993-94 at the College of Europe in Bruges, where she did a Masters of Law program in what was then European Community Law. Having just completed her J.D. at Harvard Law School, Ms. Sacco was ready to head back to Europe, where she’d spent a semester and two summers in Paris, including working at a French law firm. In an interview with Dr. Jane Judge, she discussed her experience in Bruges, in the unique atmosphere at the College of Europe, and how it shaped her career—and her life! The excerpts from their conversation below have been edited for clarity. In some ways, Ms. Sacco’s experience at a European institution embodied the new Fulbright Schuman program, begun in 1991-1992. That program funds graduate and post-graduate study, research, and lecture proposals in the field of US-EU relations, EU policy, or EU institutions for interested American and EU citizens. You can find more information here.

With a friend from the College of Europe in Bruges in 1994


What made you decide to apply for a Fulbright grant and how did you choose your program?
[After graduating from law school], “I knew that I wanted to be back in Europe and that I wanted to be doing something with French. At the time, I thought I was interested in international law here in the States, or potentially in Europe. It wasn’t entirely clear to me. I had a job offer from a law firm in Washington, D.C., to work in their international law department. But they were willing to let me postpone for a year, or I was sort of banking on that they would be. I had a professor at Harvard who was a visiting professor who was also a professor at the College of Europe. I took a class with him—I can’t remember exactly the class—related to EC law (now EU law). I talked to him about the program at the College of Europe and started to look for ways to get there and that’s when I came across Fulbright.”

What are some of your strongest memories of your time as a grantee?
“Remember this [was] 1993, so we could fax. My boyfriend, who is now my husband, could fax me from his computer, but we didn’t have internet access, so I would have to actually send him a fax home. [laughter] So in a way it was like an isolating experience. But it was also kind of very—everyone was very “Rah, rah!” you know, “Here we are in school,” and that part was really fun. Law is an undergraduate degree in Europe, so most people were younger than I was. I became very close friends with several women. My sort of little group that we formed included two women who were my age. One was Italian and one was Spanish and I remain very close with them to this day. The Spanish friend actually just visited me with her three children. They are living in London and they had an October break and she and the three kids visited my family for a long weekend. My Italian friend, we visited her in Rome, she visited us here recently. And then we went last summer to Norway and Copenhagen for a vacation and she met us in Copenhagen for the weekend. What was great about that is that my son has decided that he wants to speak Italian. He’s fourteen and he started studying Italian and so he got to hang out with my friend and practice with her. It’s very cute. Anyway, long winded way of saying, we formed this group and the guys that we were friends with were mostly German because in Germany you have to do an internship after your law degree. So, they were also our age. We also were friends with a French woman who lived near us. So, it was really a very international experience.”

To hear Ms. Sacco talk about her relationships with women from so many countries in a bit more depth, listen here::

“So, I became friends with people from all these different countries. One of my friends who I’m still in touch with, who also lived on our hallway, was Greek. She’s a Greek expat living in London now and I saw her a few years ago and so on. But I also, because I was kind of craving, I don’t know, a little bit of a home environment and also just wanting to see what the more local culture was like, I saw an ad that someone was looking for a babysitter to speak English to their kids. So I actually babysat for a couple with kids in Bruges. They had lived in the States at some point and wanted their kids not to lose their English. That was really fun.”

With the same friend in Copenhagen in 2017


“It was a different perspective, I would say. Because the other thing about being in Belgium was, I was not in “Belgium, the country.” I mean, I was but I wasn’t living the experience of “I’m in the country Belgium and what are the Belgian people like and what’s Belgium’s place in the world.” I was in the EU. I was in this college where most of the people who work end up working in the government and mechanisms of the European Union. It was very much about that, and at the time, 1992-1993, it was the beginning of a lot of this. So it was very much about a unified Europe and all of these people from all of these European and Eastern European countries coming together to immerse themselves in the vision for what the EU could be. So that was a very different and compelling experience that you really couldn’t have had anywhere else. You couldn’t have that living in Paris because living in Paris is about living in France, the country. So, this experience, being at the College of Europe in Bruges and spending time in Brussels, certainly I saw and experienced Belgian culture but that was a little bit on the side of this bigger picture of EU understanding.”

With friends from college of Europe in Paris in 1995.


How did your Fulbright grant affect your career?
“Well, first of all I realised when I was there that I did not want to practice international law! Which is very interesting because I sort of sat there in a class on antitrust law and thought, “Oh just because this is in French doesn’t mean I like the law any better. I am not more interested in this.” In fact, I had to write a thesis and I did mine on sexual harassment in the European Union. I ended up calling my law firm [in the States] and saying, “You know what, I really would like to be in the employment law department.” [laughter] So, that’s what I did. They said, “Okay, that’s fine,” and I went and I did that and sort of from there moved on in my career to do a lot of different things. My current job is that I no longer practice law but I’m a career counselor at Harvard Law School. So I work with a lot of students who have diverse backgrounds, come from a lot of different places and are interested in the world legal and political scene. So that’s been really interesting and it’s funny how my year in Belgium comes up with some of these students in terms of what they are thinking—or the summer that I worked in a law firm in Paris—in terms of what they’re thinking for their summers and how they are going to start their career and where they’re hoping that they will go. It wasn’t necessarily like, “Ooh, it was a lasting effect,” in the sense that it followed me for twenty years. It just came up now, again, in an interesting way. So I do talk about those experiences sometimes when I am engaging with students about their plans.”

Listen here to a little more of Ms. Sacco’s perspective on the lasting experiences of her time as a grantee:

“I think [Fulbright] changes people’s paths. I think for me it’s almost been—like I went there and learned, “Oh I don’t want to do this thing I thought I wanted to do, I want to do this other thing,” that maybe doesn’t seem as directly related but it was more that I was interested in kind of the cultural norms that make up different European cultures and how the EU regulated sexual harassment. Then that let me to be interested in how that worked here in a different way. So, it was still connected. Actually, I came back and I spent the summer that I came back doing a report for the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy in New York on abortion laws in Europe. …It made me interested in those broader questions: “How do other people do it? How does that reflect on how we do it and what does that all mean?” I think that that’s meaningful for our society. I think especially now when you think about how insular so many Americans seem to be, this ability to look outside and say, “We’re all one world and we’re all connected,” is really critical.”

What is Fulbright’s world in today’s world, particularly with the rise of online and distance learning programs?
“I think those are totally different experiences. Being able to be on Youtube or talk, you know—differs from the lived experience of living in a country, of figuring out like, “How do I do my laundry here? How do I connect to the (now) internet here? Where’s my phone?” You know, I talk to people who moved to other countries and no matter how many times you visited a country, actually living in a country is a completely different experience in terms of intersecting with their infrastructure and their rules and their timelines and the way the things work in a country. It’s a totally different experience. You know, I’m the age that I am so I feel like the interpersonal experiences are completely different lived experiences than ones that you conduct online. I work with a lot of students who have those experiences still and definitely find that. The nice part about having the access to the communication with others is that it makes it easier, it makes it easier to be places because you don’t feel isolated from the people at home and you can connect more readily to the things that are available around you in the place where you are.”

Ms Sacco’s final words on her Fulbright experience: