From Struggling Reader to US Attorney

The Stern Center for Language and Learning is a nonprofit learning center dedicated to helping children and adults reach their academic, social, and professional goals. At an annual meeting of the organization, Zach Terwilliger shared his story and expressed gratitude for his Stern Center teachers who understood his learning disability, knew how to teach him to read, and nurtured his obvious intellect.

You could argue that Zach Terwilliger’s career as a United States Attorney began at age seven. A second grader who struggled mightily with reading, Zach came to the Stern Center for Language and Learning in Vermont to undergo a learning evaluation, and the experience changed his life.

At the outset of elementary school, Zach was acutely aware that he was “not like all the other kids,” especially as they proudly moved through a rainbow of more advanced books while Zach was stuck where he was on day one: with the badge of the lime-green reader. “I just wanted to be like the other kids,” Zach said as he recalled being swallowed by the stigma of being different—missing school for a long day of testing, getting special help after school, and battling tasks that came so easily to others. “But I’m on the lime green reader, I’m not that smart,” he recalled telling his Stern Center teachers.

In just a few months during second grade, Zach began to see that the Stern Center staff believed in him. They recognized his intellect, nurtured his drive and capitalized on these strengths as they helped him become an effective reader, which “was such a relief to me and to my parents.”

In high school he was again confronted with feeling different, but this time he chose to build on “what started with the Stern Center: my work ethic. I learned to work hard; that just became my reality.”

As an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, Zach began to steer his energy and focus to topics of keen interest, and for the first time in his life he began to see dyslexia as a strength. His work ethic, his nonlinear thinking, and his need to think outside the box combined to present a repertoire that was not only appreciated but sought after by fellow students, resulting in his serving on several student boards at the University of Virginia.

Zach battled the LSATs twice before earning admission to law school. But that was just the beginning of another hurdle. “At law school I quickly realized I couldn’t keep up with the reading demands, the thousands of pages of reading.” That crucible took a powerful toll: “I was barely sleeping, eating poorly, was extremely stressed…my work ethic was maxed, I couldn’t work any harder…I lost 15 pounds.”

With unwavering determination, a willingness to work hard, and stellar social skills, he persisted, eventually managed the demands and graduated with the highest honors from William & Mary School of Law. His first job, a clerkship, ultimately led to a position as a federal prosecutor, a role that once again tapped, celebrated, and rewarded his nonlinear thinking, ability to see multiple perspectives, capacity to consider solutions that others might not see, and realization that sometimes it goes “A to C to B.” Additionally, he was able to rely more on his strong verbal and interpersonal skills as his preferred mode of communication.

In 2016, the Department of Justice offered him a position which would demand many 20-hour days, “which called once again on the work ethic I started at the Stern Center; for the first time I was totally OK with how I learn, how I communicate, and with my dyslexia.” Dyslexia had released his strengths, and brought forward the attributes and talents that made him successful in his career.

So successful, in fact, that just 18 months later G. Zachary Terwilliger was confirmed as United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.

“As someone who could never keep up,” said Terwilliger, “I cannot tell you how much the Stern Center and its staff have meant to me. Had I not learned to read, not overcome my dyslexia, I would probably have been fine, but fine wasn’t good enough. You all came into my life at a time when I truly needed you and what you brought me. It has been a wild ride, and none of this would have happened without you. I have come to embrace my dyslexia. I would not be the person I am today without my learning disability and without all of you at the Stern Center. My success is substantially due to you.”

For more information or to contact us, visit The Stern Center for Language and Learning’s website