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Alumni Spotlight: State DEP commissioner says Magnet School experience was pivotal
23 March 2023 · Joseph Bakes
Shawn LaTourette, Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, says attending a Middlesex County Magnet School changed his life.
“I’m not sure I’d be here today without it,” he said. “It opened my eyes to all of the different possibilities. The whole experience just changed my life.”
“Middlesex County Magnet Schools, formerly known as Middlesex County Vocational and Technical Schools, have been providing exceptional, specialized education for over 100 years to Middlesex County students,” said Middlesex County Commissioner Director Ronald G. Rios. “State Environmental Protection Commissioner Shawn LaTourette is a testament to the exceptional education provided by our county's Magnet Schools, and inspires us to continue our mission of delivering high-quality education to all students”
Commissioner LaTourette, 42, attended middle school in Woodbridge and is a 1998 graduate of what was then Woodbridge Vo-Tech. It had been the girls’ vocational and technical school and still had a five-to-one ratio of girls to boys when he started.
The offerings on the campus, which now houses the Woodbridge Academy Magnet School, specializing in bio-medical and health careers, was still heavily geared toward what were considered careers for women, such as fashion design and cosmetology.
He chose automated office technology – an update of the old secretarial career major – and in his junior year was offered an internship with a small law firm in Perth Amboy.
“I thought my best option was to get some skills and get a job after I graduated,” he said.
“I tend to be sort of a very hands-on type of person. I learn by doing. Being at Vo-Tech, it spoke more to my learning style than a traditional high school would have. And because of that, a lot of doors opened that might not have otherwise.
“The real benefit was in the doing. If you come from a family like mine, the value and the dignity that that gives you where you’re contributing and you’re being productive, I was able to feel the benefits of that more directly at Vo-Tech.
“I was able to go into an office and demonstrate a skill and be rewarded for that skill. The point is to have these multiple options that speak to the needs of different students. I’m not sure I’d be here right now today without it.”
After the internship, he became a secretary’s assistant, then a paralegal, then a business administrator of a small law firm.
“When I went to Vo-Tech it was not what it is now,” he said. “It was the place you went when maybe college wasn’t your next step. I grew up in a family where no one went to college.
“In my shop there were no men other than me,” LaTourette said. “All of the girls jokingly called me Secretary Shawn, which I would answer to today. I was inducted into the New Jersey Equity Hall of Fame for being the only male in a female area of study.
“I did my undergraduate study at night while I worked full time, first at Middlesex County College, then Rutgers,” he said. “It was exhausting.”
He took a break and went to law school full time at Rutgers in Camden, graduating second in his class. He then worked for large law firms in New York City and Newark.
He became a community organizer, advocating for victims of environmental pollution, and did that for 10 years.
Although he wasn’t involved in state politics – even though he was a class officer in high school and at Rutgers – he was chosen for the role of chief counsel under Catherine McCabe, Governor Phil Murphy’s first commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), whose experience was in the federal government.
“She wanted a New Jersey environmental lawyer as chief counsel,” he said. “I moved up into another role and then another role. It turns out I love government – who knew?
“I have a deep love for the work that I’m doing here because of the way it can improve the lives of other people,” he said. “I imagine that my next step is to continue doing that work in some way.”
Commissioner LaTourette also is an advocate for gay rights and has been chairman of the LGBTQ Section of the New Jersey Bar Association.
About Middlesex County Magnet Schools
Middlesex County Magnet Schools enroll approximately 2,000 high school students and more than 7,000 adults annually. Established in 1914 by the Middlesex County Board of County Commissioners, the district fulfills an essential need for free occupational training across the State of New Jersey. Students in the district attend classes on campuses situated in five Middlesex County municipalities: East Brunswick, Edison, Perth Amboy, Piscataway, and Woodbridge.
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