New Year, New Roles at the Law School

A conversation with the new leaders of student affairs and career services.

The start of the academic year means new responsibilities and goals for many, including two long-serving Columbia Law administrators—Petal Modeste and Marta Ricardo ’94. The two women spearheaded initiatives together in the Office of Career Services and Professional Development for nearly a decade. This past August, they each assumed new positions—Modeste as head of student affairs administration and Ricardo as the new dean of career services.

Here, they talk about their careers, their new roles, and their plans for the coming year.

Interviews have been lightly edited for space and clarity.


Title: Associate Dean of Student Affairs Administration
Previous Role: Assistant Dean and Dean of Career Services

Born and raised in Trinidad, Petal Modeste says she grew up in a diverse culture, where people of different races, religions, and backgrounds mixed easily. “It allowed me to have a very broad and wonderful experience of the world,” she says. After receiving her J.D. from Howard University School of Law, Modeste spent a few years working as an associate in the finance group at Shearman & Sterling (where she also pursued several high-profile pro bono projects, including an assignment to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda) and then as senior director of legal recruiting at Weil, Gotshal & Manges. In 2009, as the financial crisis was challenging the legal profession, she joined Columbia Law School as head of Career Services, building the office into a powerhouse for graduate job placement. Now leading student affairs administration, Modeste says she’s looking forward to new challenges. “I want to push the envelope,” she adds.

What are your goals for your new job?
My first goal is to explore, to do a deep dive into how we do business. I would like to better understand how we serve our students and other constituents—what systems we have in place, what tech we use, how we make decisions about what, when, and how we communicate. So my first big goal is to undertake a serious exploration.

My second big goal is to achieve efficiencies and to improve our systems and processes so that the student experience is highly enriched. But in doing so, I also want to find ways to enhance the experience of all of us who serve the students. So the second goal is to create a more efficient and enjoyable experience for us and those we serve.

The last goal is to contribute more fully to elevating the student affairs community and, by extension, the CLS community. I want us to spend more time getting to know each other, so that not only do our working relationships get better, but our ability to be creative and innovate at work and in our personal lives is strengthened. I believe this will empower us to impact our workplace and our world in powerful and positive ways.

What is your approach to your work?
I don’t care what the problem is. I don’t care how difficult a situation might be. I always start with people. I try always to take the time to get to know the people with whom I work—their motivations, aspirations, fears, and frustrations. I believe that the better connected I am to my team, the more we can accomplish together—even if we don’t always agree. Ultimately, I work best when I can actively engage with a creative, incredibly intelligent and innovative team and these qualities characterize the SAA team. So I am excited about getting to know everyone better and to working in a way that allows us to accomplish amazing things together.

What is one fact about you that people may not know?
I have been to every continent I think, except Antarctica. My most memorable trip was to East Africa. When I was a practicing lawyer, one of my pro bono clients was the UNICTR, the tribunal established to litigate crimes related to the Rwandan genocide.  Working on those trials changed my perspective on many things about human nature and reminded me that we cannot take for granted the life we enjoy in parts of the world not torn apart by fear and greed and war, because “civil society” is a fragile construct easily lost without caring vigilance.


Title: Assistant Dean and Dean of Career Services
Previous Role: Executive Director of Career Services and Professional Development

Originally from Miami, Ricardo first joined Columbia Law School as a student, earning her J.D. in 1994. After several years as an associate at two New York City law firms, she moved over to the investment banking world in 1999, working at J.P. Morgan, Barclays, and HSBC. Before the onset of the 2008 financial crisis, Ricardo returned to the Law School as director of student organizations and academic counseling. In 2009, with Modeste’s arrival, Ricardo joined the Office of Career Services and led the school’s international career counseling initiatives. Now succeeding Modeste at the helm of the office, Ricardo is eager to build on the successes the team has accomplished during the past several years.

You’ve been working at Columbia since 2007. What approach do you bring to your work?
I’ll help anyone. I’m always happy to do favors for anyone. In part, because I’m building the world’s largest favor bank for our students. I’m always helping people, but then I will always ask, “Hey, you know how I helped you? I need a favor.”

It’s always important to be a giver, to be generous. That generosity of spirit is pretty important, and you always grow by giving. If you want to be mentored, you should mentor people.

What are your goals for your new role?
I’m starting from the strongest foundation. All credit to the people we’ve had in this office and Petal’s strong leadership. This is an institutional strength. The Law School has always built a curriculum that develops lawyers who are incredibly good and creative. I can’t go without saying that.

What I want to do is to be more where the students are. Focusing on what we need to get the students from the website, making it much more streamlined, and making it much more straightforward. These are things we’ve been thinking about for a while: What can be digital? What can be accessed on demand? We’re going to work on creating a podcast on how to do your resume so that when we have an in-person meeting with students, they will be more focused on a career path and professional development and less focused on [resume format]. [With podcasts], we can set what the expectation is, but spend our face-to-face time with students more constructively.

You also mentioned working with Social Justice Initiatives (SJI), which oversees public interest job counseling.
Collaboration with SJI is also incredibly important to me. I would like students to feel like they can be completely open with us about what they want. Every path [including private sector and public interest careers] is completely important. I don’t want students to come here thinking it’s a factory. I want them to feel like they have agency and choice.

What is one fact about you that people may not know?
I knew how to drive a boat before I knew how to drive a car because I’m from Miami. And I knew how to drive a car from the time I was 14—a stick shift!


Posted September 11, 2017