Graduation 2019: Highlights of the Day
J.D., LL.M., and J.S.D. students celebrate graduation, with California Attorney General Xavier Becerra delivering the keynote.
On a warm evening with a refreshing breeze, Columbia Law School held graduation exercises for the Class of 2019. More than 700 J.D., LL.M, and J.S.D. candidates, along with some 4,000 guests, gathered on May 20 beneath massive white tents on the South Lawn of the historic Morningside campus for a ceremony that celebrated the accomplishments of the class and their role in promoting equality and ensuring a just society.
The processional was led by a contingent from the Class of 1969, which will celebrate its 50th reunion from May 31 to June 1.
Dean of Graduate Legal Studies Sylvia T. Polo high-fived each LL.M. student before they entered the tents.
The Graduation Committee co-chairs—from left, Merilin Castillo ’19, Katherine Nuñez ’19, and Ayisha C. McHugh ’19—welcomed their classmates, families, friends, professors, and the Law School’s support staff before introducing Gillian Lester, Dean and the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law.
“Our world has a peculiar way of moving the goalposts,” said Dean Lester. “Today’s feeling of accomplishment will cede ground to a different set of ideals and priorities, a new and seemingly more impossible set of criteria by which to measure greatness. When those days arrive—and they will—strive to swim against the currents of a binary world. Try to hold your thoughts in equipoise, finding the evenness of mind to suspend judgment of yourself as much as others. And resist the temptation to seize upon simple bromides born of fear or discomfort. That’s what will set you apart—not society’s version of greatness, but your equanimity in moments of challenge and in moments of triumph.”
Will Cobb ’19, the president of the Student Senate, introduced the J.D. and LL.M. class speakers—Pablo E. Zevallos ’19 and Jonas Vernimmen ’19 LL.M.—who were elected by a popular vote of their classmates.
“This is the class I have seen throughout these last three years: durable in our compassion, relentless in our advocacy, devoted in our commitment to justice,” said Zevallos. “This is the class I am so proud to be part of, and I cannot wait to see what we do when we set loose this spirit upon the legal world.”
“The faces of the people around you glow with great expectations,” said Vernimmen. “Naturally, we will fail to live up to these expectations. It is true: We will. There are only so many cases that we can win, deals we can make, brilliant papers we can write, movements that we can build, only so many hours of sleep that we can skip. More than once we will let ourselves down, disappoint our friends, our parents, our loved ones. And you know what? That is OK. It is OK, because true failure does not lie in not living up to expectations. Failure lies in not trying, in not disrupting or breaking, in not mending, in not improving, in not imagining. It lies in closing ourselves off from the challenges we face. It lies in being blind to the responsibility that comes with our privilege.”
Castillo presented the Willis L.M. Reese Prize for Excellence in Teaching to Professor Zohar Goshen, Jerome L. Greene Professor of Transactional Law, a two-time winner of the teaching prize. “The belief that in real time you can tell whether something that is happening to you is good or bad is often wrong. Sometimes it takes years until an event reveals its true nature as either a good or a bad thing,” said Goshen. “Tying happiness to achievements is a futile exercise.”
“My mother, may she rest in peace, believed that the road out of poverty for her five children was education. She made it our first priority, and every day when she came home from her job in a sausage factory, she checked our homework. It took me until sixth grade to notice that she was holding the notebook backwards.
“‘You do not know how to read,’ I said.
“‘Yes,’ she replied calmly, ‘And now that you know, you will teach me.’ And she learned.”
Jessica Choi ’19, Patrick Waldrop ’19, Marie-Marie de Fays, L.L.M. ’19, and Rishabh Devan Parikh ’19 LL.M. presented Dean Lester with a scroll listing the 535 students—nearly 72 percent of the graduating class—who contributed to the Class Gift. “Graduating from Columbia Law School carries . . . a responsibility to give back via our time, our knowledge, our advocacy and our leadership, and of course, monetarily,” said Waldrop. “The class gift is about all of our class coming together as a class . . . to honor that responsibility by giving back together to the institution that made us into the people that get to walk across this stage today.”
Nuñez introduced keynote speaker Xavier Becerra, the California Attorney General, and the father of Clarisa Reyes-Becerra ’19. “You didn’t come this far and work this hard just to step in line, just to read the signs and do as they say,” Becerra said. “You are here not just to interpret authority but to join in the great Columbia tradition of questioning it and shaping it, of righting wrongs and rewriting the rules. That’s what leadership looks like.”
As their names were announced by Dean of Admissions Nkonye Iwerebon ’93, Dean of Students Yadira Ramos-Herbert, and Dean of Graduate Legal Studies Sylvia T. Polo, each member of the Class of 2019—in some cases, along with their littlest, biggest fans—crossed the stage to shake hands with Dean Lester and Becerra.
Before joining their friends and families for a reception on Ancel Plaza, the Class of 2019 gathered for the traditional group picture.