Beneath the soaring dome of Columbia University’s historic Low Memorial Library, the members of the Columbia Law School Class of 2021 commenced their first day as J.D. students on August 20. They were welcomed by Dean of Admissions Nkonye Iwerebon ’93 who told them they were “the most amazing, most accomplished, and talented class in the 160- year history” of the Law School. (“I, of course, reserve the right to say the same thing to next year’s class,” she added.)
The Class of 2021 is socioeconomically, ethnically, and geographically diverse. Iwerebon reported that its members are about 50 percent women and 40 percent people of color. Its ranks include triathletes, political speechwriters, figure skaters, financial analysts, urban farmers, pilots, entrepreneurs, jugglers, and Uber drivers.
“Some of you have endured more than your fair share of challenges, chasing America’s promise by staring down the stigma of being the child of undocumented parents, or cleaning houses with your mother and aunt to help put food on the table,” said Iwerebon. “A number of you exemplify a different kind of courage, having served in the military and placed your lives at risk for values we hold dear. We honor you and thank you for your service.”
The students also were welcomed by Gillian Lester, Dean and the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law. “One of my favorite traditions each year is hearing Dean Iwerebon describe the incredibly interesting lives our students have led before coming to Columbia Law School,” she said.
Dean Lester told the future lawyers that they are destined to shape the world. “This education will prepare you to lead, to face head on the most urgent and pressing challenges of our time,” she said. “To lead others, you have to inspire them. And to inspire them, you yourself have to find a source of inspiration. Inspiration is the spark that motivates you, the voice inside that tells you why a thing you do matters.”
She shared the story of Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in a president’s cabinet, who was the secretary of labor during the entire presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt (who studied at Columbia Law from 1904 to 1907). As a young woman, Perkins witnessed firsthand the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, in which 146 New York City garment workers perished. It was a transformative experience that inspired Perkins to devote her life to changing the economic and working conditions of low-wage workers, which included being one of the principal architects of Roosevelt’s New Deal, which helped lift the United States out of the Great Depression.
Dean Lester advised the students to remember their epiphanies. “That inspiration—the thing that reminds you why the thing you do matters—will help you harness what you learn here at Columbia Law School to do the best work you can do and to make the most meaningful contribution you can make,” she said.
A week earlier, Dean Lester spoke to some 300 Masters of Laws (LL.M.) students at their orientation. “If the welcomes you hear seem warm and full of promises that we’ll be there by your side, it’s all true. It’s really going to be a journey we all take together,” said Dean Lester. “We all hope it will be one of the most memorable and exciting years of your life, helping to guide you, support you, to take you through this hopefully transformative year that you spend with us here at Columbia Law School.”
In Dean of Graduate Legal Studies Sylvia T. Polo’s introductory remarks, she noted that the LL.M. students come from more than 50 countries and jurisdictions. All of them have earned at least one prior law degree with the highest concentrations having studied in China, Brazil, the United Kingdom, India, and France. Almost every LL.M. candidate has more than a year of work experience in fields including commercial law, technology, human rights, and diplomacy.
Polo stressed that the LL.M. year is an opportunity to make lifelong friends and build a global professional network. “It’s great to have friends all over the world, and you will never travel the same,” she said. “And you will be invited to more weddings than you ever thought, and they will all be destination weddings!”
Both the J.D. and LL.M. orientations included a mix of social events— such as an alfresco lunch featuring food-truck tacos, dinner with peer mentors, and a happy hour in Harlem—and serious presentations on academic integrity, creating an inclusive community, and how to speak to professors in class and during office hours. At the “What We Want You to Know” panel with faculty, Professor Bert I. Huang, the vice dean for intellectual life and the Michael I. Sovern professor of law, said, “Our dream for law students is to have you thinking.” The first day of J.D. orientation was chronicled in an Instagram takeover by Samantha Briggs ’19.
Archana Vasa ’21 said she appreciated Columbia’s holistic approach to legal education. “We’ve been told to not only focus on academics,” she said. “We’ve been encouraged to meet as many people as possible so we have a network of friends who will become a network of professional colleagues three years from now.”
For Jillian Williams ’21, the highlight of the week was hearing other students’ stories of their paths to Columbia Law School. “Everyone I’ve met is amazing,” said Williams. “I am excited to see what they will do as much as I am excited to see what I will do.”
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Posted on August 28, 2018