Faces of the Class of 2024

Hear from 1Ls on why they came to Columbia Law, what they are looking forward to, and if they have passed their first real test: navigating the New York City subway.

Mercedes Alexis Chavez, Lena Chan, and Nancy Lu at Orientation 2021

Who are the members of the Class of 2024? Below, meet students from near (New York) and far (Sudan) with hidden talents (competitive distance running) and discerning tastes (Manhattan’s best bagels) whose individual goals—driven by personal experience—have been strengthened by their shared enthusiasm for the law and excitement of being part of the Columbia Law School community.

Interviews have been edited and condensed.

Ahmed Ali smiling at Orientation

Ahmed H. Ali

Hometown: Khartoum, Sudan

What inspired you to come to law school?

Though my academic and professional pursuits all hinted at a future career in law, my inspiration to come to law school was ultimately shaped by witnessing the strength of the Sudanese people to overcome mass violence and injustice during the 2019 Sudanese Revolution. A desire to serve the future generations of my country drove me to elect a future career in law.

Why Columbia Law School?

Because of its emphasis on developing global legal practitioners. I was enamored by the school’s depth of international, law-related courses and seminars, as well as . . . the immense support provided by the Office of International Programs for those seeking careers abroad.

What are you most looking forward to over the next three years?

I’m most looking forward to fostering new and genuine relationships with people in the Law School and Columbia community. I’m also excited to visit as many black-owned Harlem businesses (especially coffee shops) as possible!

Adam Burstain smiling at Orientation

Adam Burstain

Hometown: Cedar Rapids, Iowa

What inspired you to come to law school? 

I was inspired to come to law school, at least partly, because of the hyper-politicization of our government. . . . I want to be part of helping to restore legitimacy and trust in both government and scientific institutions by being an honest and hard-working member of those institutions and continue to make things better for everyone in our nation. I also was partially inspired by my perception that there is a lack of individuals with a scientific background in controlling positions in our legal system. As society becomes more and more technical, I believe that that proportion needs to increase.

Why Columbia Law School? 

Columbia Law School has top-tier faculty that can teach me to explore the intricacies of our complex legal system and to understand the dynamics of legal power. Columbia can facilitate the personal connections needed to reach the sites of decision-making within our society. . . . Lastly, Columbia is situated in one of the most beautiful cities in America and the city that houses a large amount of the important social/legal/economic activity in the country and the organizations that facilitate that activity.

What class are you most looking forward to taking and why? 

I am definitely looking forward to criminal procedure and constitutional law. Perhaps it’s because of crime shows, documentaries, and the public’s focus on these fields as the epitome of what the word “law” means, but they seem like they’ll be exciting and the highest of stakes.

Have you mastered the subway?

I’ve mastered the subway, but I still panic a little when it stops in the middle of a tunnel. And, of course, I sometimes mistakenly go into a station that only allows access to the downtown train, not realizing until I’ve passed through the turnstile that I’m gonna have to go back up and pay again to get to the uptown train.

Erin Byrne smiling at Orientation 2021

Erin Byrne

Hometown: St. Louis

What inspired you to come to law school? 

I decided to come to law school because I believe that being a lawyer combines two of my favorite things: theater and intensive research and writing. I wanted to enter a field where I could use these two interests and skills in order to help others and believe that being a lawyer will be the best way to do that.

Why Columbia Law School? 

One of my primary interests is international law, and Columbia not only has a fantastic program for this but is also situated in the best city to gain exposure to the world of international law. And, if I decide to go into a different field, Columbia has great opportunities across the board. 

What’s a fun fact that people might be surprised to know about you?

I am a champion Irish dancer. I competed regionally as an individual and qualified for the World Championships as a member of a group.

Favorite New York City finds?

I love bagels and am trying to find the best bagel shop within walking distance of the Law School. So far, it’s between Absolute Bagels on Broadway and Bo’s Bagels in Harlem! 

Have you mastered the subway? 

I have absolutely not mastered the subway and have both gotten off at the wrong stop and waited on the wrong side for a train going in the opposite direction of where I needed to be. I’m learning, though!

Lena Chan smiling at Orientation

Lena Chan

Hometown: Salt Lake City

What inspired you to come to law school?

I have always been fascinated by human behavior, especially those that many define as “irrational” or “maladaptive.” Through my undergraduate studies in psychology, I learned about the systemic issues—socioeconomic disadvantage, stigma against race and mental illness, health care disparities—that perpetuate entanglement in the criminal justice system. I believe that a neuropsychological understanding of human behavior is critical to defending the law and hope to explore the intersection between psychopathology and the criminal justice system at Columbia Law School.

Why Columbia Law School?

As a student with interests in both public interest law and technology law, I especially admire the diversity of programs and institutional support at CLS. The Office of Social Justice Initiatives will allow me to address issues of incarceration within my local community [through its] unparalleled financial support and mentorship.

Any favorite New York City discoveries? 

I have found the Union Square farmer’s market is an excellent escape from my studies! . . . Whether you are looking for fresh vegetables, baked goods, or plants to decorate your room, the trip to Union Square is worth your while.

Any tips you’d give newcomers to the city?

Embrace the subway! With an open mindset, it can take you anywhere. I recommend downloading a good playlist and bringing a good book.

Mercedes Chavez smiling at orientation

Mercedes Chavez

Hometown: El Paso, Texas

What inspired you to come to law school? 

The human aspect to it—being able to grapple with moral questions and advocate for peoples’ rights. My grandparents were first-generation immigrants and they had raised me to fear and respect the power of the legal system in the United States. Along the way, I equated helping people with protecting people, thinking punitive policies would help. Today, I know for certain that I want to go to law school to instead help people through legal advocacy.

Why Columbia Law? 

I loved the idea of moving to New York City originally. As I learned more about the school itself, I was really drawn to the faculty and opportunities the Law School offers, including but not limited to its active faculty and many groups to join. 

What are you looking forward to about law school? 

I am most excited about all the amazing people I will get to meet while I’m here at school. Everyone I’ve met so far has been so nice and accomplished, and I’m excited to meet professors in my first week.

Gwynedd Cowan smiling at orientation

Gwynedd Cowan

Hometown: Columbus, Ohio

What inspired you to come to law school?

I actually got very lucky in that my first dream job remains the same today! I have always been an avid reader and found logical reasoning and finance to be of particular interest to me throughout my undergraduate studies. Today, I am interested in the realm of corporate law.

Why Columbia Law School?

I chose CLS for the opportunity to be educated at a renowned university while living in a vibrant city. I don’t foresee myself leaving anytime soon!

What’s on your New York City to-do list?

I’ve always wanted to ice skate at Rockefeller Center. Thankfully the Christmas season is coming up soon!

Any tips you’d give newcomers?

Download the Citymapper app! It’s been such a big help when it comes to navigating the subways here.

Maxwell Edwards smiling at Orientation

Maxwell Edwards

Hometown: Germantown, Maryland

What inspired you to come to law school? 

The many jobs of an attorney appealed to me because I want to advocate for others while pursuing my own professional interests. Advocacy is a versatile profession and I would like to be known as a “renaissance man” in legal and corporate communities.

What’s a fun fact that people might be surprised to know about you?

I played Division I college football.

What class are you most looking forward to?

I am excited to take the upper-level course Cybersecurity, Data Privacy, and Surveillance Law due to society’s need for regulating data. I believe that this need will heavily impact the future of practices within the private and public sector. Therefore, learning about cyber security will help me formulate progressive ideas in tandem with the natural evolution of social needs.

Any tips you’d give newcomers to the city?

Wear headphones when you’re traveling.

Celeste Kearney smiling at Orientation

Celeste Kearney

Hometown: Cincinnati, Ohio

What inspired you to come to law school? 

Prior to law school, I worked for the in-house legal team at an investment bank. It was really interesting to see complex financial transactions and corresponding discussions on legal, tax, accounting, and regulatory issues. After law school, I would like to work on innovative legal solutions for corporate clients. 

Why Columbia Law School? 

At first, I was interested in Columbia Law School because of its strong academic program, especially all of the clinics and courses focusing on corporate law. After talking with many current students and alumni, I wanted to be a part of the strong community. It was amazing to hear about all of the support and mentorship that student organizations, especially affinity groups, offer 1Ls. 

Any favorite New York City discoveries? 

I love trying new restaurants (especially for brunch) and reading in the park. I am excited for study breaks in Riverside Park and finding a new favorite brunch spot in Morningside Heights or the Upper West Side.

Nancy Lu smiling at Orientation

Nancy Lu

Hometown: New York City

What inspired you to come to law school?

I entered undergrad with the intention of becoming a biomedical researcher or physician. However, as I took classes in health policy, I came to understand the significant influence law has on how populations are able to access and utilize health care. I realized that I could best contribute to a more efficient and equitable health care system as a lawyer.

Why Columbia Law School?

The people! At Columbia, I knew I would be taught by a world-class faculty and be surrounded by a brilliant, driven, and welcoming group of peers. I’ve really enjoyed meeting my fellow 1Ls [during orientation] and am excited for the entire Law School community to return.

What class are you most looking forward to? 

I’m particularly excited about the new Science, Health, and Information Clinic led by Professor Christopher Morten. It aligns pretty perfectly with my interests in using the law to address inequities in health care and medicine, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in such advocacy.

Any tips you’d give newcomers to the city? 

Take the express train whenever you can!

Kiera Lyons smiling at Orientation

Kiera Lyons

Hometown: Harwood, Maryland (high school) and around the country—Florida, Alaska, Rhode Island, Oregon, North Carolina, and Maryland

What inspired you to come to law school?

I want to learn how to think like a lawyer, such that I can integrate that legal method of analyzing the world with what I have learned about thinking like a physicist and an artist in order to help solve complex, urgent problems—problems that stem, in particular, from how scientific and statistical misconceptions can create and enforce legal systems that marginalize people who do not conform to existing white, straight, neurotypical, able-bodied social norms.

Why Columbia Law School?

I want my professional body of work to somehow matter, and Columbia Law School consistently graduates professionals who go on to impact the shape and form of our society in a variety of disparate but uniquely important ways.

What’s a fun fact that people might be surprised to know about you?

Last year I lived nomadically on various forms of public land west of the Rockies in a self-converted, self-contained, light blue, short school bus.

Any tips you’d give newcomers to the city?

The time you may think it will take to travel a certain distance in the city is almost always less than the time actually required to travel that distance. Learn from my mistakes and budget extra time to get places so you aren’t in a state of rush-induced panic!

Jordan McMeans smiling at Orientation

Jordan McMeans

Hometown: Southington, Connecticut

What inspired you to come to law school? 

My experiences working with marginalized groups and observing the impacts of systemic oppression made me committed to dismantling systems of injustice. This commitment brought me to law school. 

Why Columbia Law School?

I chose Columbia Law School because of the location, depth of resources, and long history of excellence.

Any hobbies or interests you’re planning on pursuing?

I hope to continue running competitively. Distance running has been a passion of mine for the last eight years, and I hope to keep improving while I’m here.

Aimee Pacheco smiling at Orientation 2021

Aimee Pacheco

Hometown: Adairsville, Georgia

What inspired you to come to law school? 

Growing up in a small working-class town near the carpet capital of the world, I saw the rampant labor rights violations occurring in factories, many workers often feeling powerless and unable to speak out in fear of being reported to ICE. In my over-policed community, overstepping in any way could lead to detainment and deportation. As I became more acquainted with immigration courts and detention centers in Georgia, I became more aware of the disparities in access to legal resources across communities. 

I am committed to doing work for the betterment of the communities I am a part of. For me, that means working within the intersection of immigration, criminal, and labor law. I hope to use my legal knowledge to become a better advocate and resource for my community as we work together to address issues and create more legal accessibility for underrepresented immigrants and workers in rural Georgia and the South. 

Why Columbia Law School? 

The opportunities at Columbia are limitless. Apart from providing a phenomenal legal education, distinguished faculty, and a strong community and network, Columbia is also located in one of the biggest and most diverse cities in the country. 

What are you most looking forward to over the next three years? 

I look forward to the connections and friendships I will make along the way. I am also looking forward to exploring the city and all that it has to offer—including the food.

Any memorable New York City moments so far? 

While I had been to New York a few times before moving in, I had never gotten a chance to see a view of the city at night. Last week, I went to the Brooklyn Bridge at night and fell in love with all of the city lights. The next evening, I ended up at a rooftop restaurant just to see the city night view again. I don’t think I could ever get tired of the view.

Gabrielle Stanfield smiling at Orientation

Gabrielle Stanfield

Hometown: Needham, Massachusetts

What inspired you to come to law school? 

I have always been interested in the law and attracted to the interdisciplinary nature of the field. . . . However, my undergraduate study of art history actually solidified my desire to come to law school. Specifically, focusing on Black art in my thesis research, I found the themes of justice and empowerment that emerge in visual imagery by Black creators to be essential to historical considerations of civil rights and movements for systemic change in our society presently.

Why Columbia Law School? 

Columbia Law School—beyond its reputation for excellence—through its presence in New York and unique resources for my intersecting interest in law and the arts truly stood out as the best option for me. . . . I am very excited to be here!

What’s a fun fact that people might be surprised to know about you?

I was the musical director and president of a student gospel choir at the University of Virginia!

What are you most looking forward to over the next three years?

In addition to my coursework and opportunities for experiential learning, I am looking forward to exploring the various art museums in the city!

Sarah Walther smiling at Orientation

Sarah Walther

Hometown: Milwaukee

What inspired you to come to law school? 

Law is at the center of all things social justice and injustice. I came to law school to understand the precedents harming people in our country and the possibilities for legal solutions.

Why Columbia Law School?

Aside from Columbia’s faculty and location, which I find unparalleled, I chose the Law School because of the financial security CLS offers both its public and private interest graduates.

What are you most looking forward to over the next three years?

It’s simple, but I’m most excited about fulfilling a lifelong goal of being a law student. The journey will be tiring, I know, but I’ve focused on getting here for all my adult life. I’m trying to enjoy every bit of the ride.

Most interesting New York City moment so far?

Witnessing my dad drive around Manhattan when he and my mom helped me move in. He’s from rural Wisconsin, but you’d never know it with the way he dodged traffic!