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MARKEISHA MINER: Good morning. Please be seated. Welcome to Cornell University. Cornell University is located on the traditional homelands of the Gayogohono, the Cayuga Nation. The Gayogohono are members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, an alliance of six sovereign nations with a historic and contemporary presence on this land.
The Confederacy precedes the establishment of Cornell University, New York State, and the United States of America. We acknowledge the painful history of the Gayogohono dispossession and honor the ongoing connection of the Gayogohono people, past and present, to these lands and waters. It is now my privilege to introduce our presider, Jens David Olin, the Alan R. Tessler Dean and Professor of Law.
JENS DAVID OLIN: Thank you, Dean Miner. Welcome, parents, friends, faculty, and most importantly, graduates of the Cornell Law School Classes of 2020 and December 2021.
This is a graduation like no other. You not only have the distinction of having formally graduated in 2020 and 2021 during a time of great upheaval. But you also have the distinction of being the first classes in our history to have your ceremony separated by two years from the date of your formal conferral of degrees. This is truly a day like no other in the history of our great law school.
When the faculty and law school leadership discussed holding an in-person graduation ceremony for the classes of 2020 and '21 on the same day that we'll be celebrating the class of '22, a few people told me that I was crazy. That's insane, they said. How can we have two graduations on the same day? And why are we doing this? I answered them then as I'll say to you now, because we promised. And promises are important, as I'm sure you'll come to appreciate during your careers as advocates and counselors.
You came to Cornell Law School as 1Ls and as new LLM students in a pre-pandemic world, before mask mandates, social distancing, isolation, and COVID vaccine requirements. And you left Cornell abruptly, dare I say, unceremoniously, when the world shut down in March, 2020.
Some of you left Ithaca and returned home to live with your parents or other family members. And some of you stayed in Ithaca, very much part of our Cornell community, but prevented from taking classes in person or participating in graduation on our campus. Either way, you didn't get the proper goodbye that you deserved and that you worked so hard for.
We had a beautiful online ceremony in 2020 that brought tears to many eyes, and it was an emotional ending to your time here at Cornell Law School. Indeed, being a tight knit community and celebrating our collective accomplishments does not require physical proximity. We are united together in a shared purpose, even when we are separated by barriers, borders, and distances large and small. But let's face it. There's no substitute for an in-person graduation ceremony.
To that end, we held a triumphant socially distanced ceremony last year in Schoellkopf Field, but not everyone could make it on short notice due to national and international travel restrictions. And then in what I can only describe as a COVID induced whiplash, the university's December '21 graduation ceremony for LLM students was canceled as the Omicron variant reared its ugly head.
So today's ceremony, it's unique ceremony is half graduation, half reunion, and 100% a party. I love Zoom as much as anyone, but it's not the same as walking across this stage with your feet firmly planted on the ground facing our great faculty and shaking my hand in front of your peers and your loved ones. That's your right as a Cornell Law School graduate, and I'm glad that that right is finally being fulfilled today.
Let me say clearly that you earned this day, this celebration, with your hard work, your patience, and your resilience. When I see all of you gathered here today in one place, that's the word that most comes to mind. Resilience.
Your generation is often accused of not being resilient enough, of being thin-skinned, of being snowflakes. And perhaps that's true of some, but certainly not true of you and not true of Cornell. When I remember how you handled the shutdown with so much grace and patience, I can truly say that you were resilient.
You handled final exams online back when taking an online exam was a novel experience. You weathered the uncertainty of an online bar exam, of starting work for law firms, while huddled in small apartments or far away locations, distanced from mentors, colleagues and friends. You learned how to be a lawyer when there was no office in which to be a lawyer. You redefined success in an era when the law office itself disappeared and legal practice was transformed. You are trail blazers.
Lawyers need to be many things, but chief among them is resilient. Lawyers need to be resilient, because sometimes their clients are not. Whether working for corporations, nonprofit organizations, governments or individuals, whether the matter is civil or criminal, clients are often fragile. Clients need legal assistance, because they need help navigating a legal system that is at best unfamiliar and at worst unjust.
Lawyers need to communicate uncomfortable truths to clients and adversaries who don't want to hear them. They can't say what people want to hear, when what people really want to hear is a lie. So lawyers need to communicate unpopular truths and force people to come to terms with cold reality. With the decline of truth and expertise and the rise of misinformation, lawyers need to stand up for the rule of law and the principles of truth and objectivity that serve as its eternal foundation.
So you need resilience to be a truth teller. And I know that you have resilience to spare. You are already fierce, strong advocates for the rule of law. That ferocity was on full display when you were students in Myron Taylor Hall. And that resilience, that ferocity, is on full display today now that you've returned as lawyers in the best sense.
What's truly distinctive about your class is that this graduation ceremony comes deep into your legal careers. No need for us to be giving you advice about what it's like to be working as an attorney out there in the real world when you've been crushing it 12 hours a day, every day of the week for two long years. You know exactly what it's like to work a case, to deal with a fragile client, to deal with a demanding partner, or to tackle a tough assignment. If anyone should be coming up on stage to offer advice, it's you. You're all seasoned legal professionals.
We can't overstate how much the world has changed since you left Ithaca. In your short professional lives, the location and definition of work has changed. The boundary between home and office has blurred, perhaps irrevocably. The fabric of society has changed with rules being rewritten as we speak. It's hard to predict what life will look not just a decade from now but even a year.
In the near future, you'll be dealing with the economic disruption of inflation, a labor market in disarray, diplomatic and military uncertainty caused by recent events in Ukraine and in Europe, and the existential challenge posed by climate change. There are problems that lay ahead, and we'll need lawyers to negotiate and craft solutions that are at once ambitious and practical, visionary and realistic.
There are also real opportunities for growth, for which attorneys will play a meaningful role. Young entrepreneurs are disrupting markets with new and innovative technology, and private equity firms are providing the capital to make it happen. Corporations are learning to balance profits with a growing sense of social responsibility. Activists are pushing for reform in the areas of criminal justice, human rights and economic equality.
I have great faith in all of you that you'll take the mantle of humanity and hold it high. Congratulations on the remarkable achievement of graduating from Cornell Law School and becoming lawyers in the best sense. You now join a worldwide community of attorneys who share the legacy of this great institution. You were brilliant as students, and I know you're now brilliant as attorneys at law. Congratulations, and thank you.
We'll now be hearing from two of our graduates this morning, both of them elected by their peers in March 2020 before they departed campus to speak today. One represents the Juris Doctor class. The second represents our Master of Law's program. Jialin Yang was an involved student in law school, serving as assistant judicial codes counselor, senior notes editor on the Cornell Law Review, and President of the Asian Pacific American Law Student Association.
She also advocated for clients in three clinics, capital punishment, farm workers assistance, and women's decarceration. Jialin has been an engaged alumna, returning to Ithaca as recently as March of this year to provide career advice as a panelist at the APALSA Academy. Jialin is a member of the New York Bar and is an Associate at Gibson Dunn.
JIALIN YANG: Good morning, Class of 2020. I'm sorry I'm not there in person with you. Unfortunately, after dodging COVID for two years, I came down hard with COVID on my birthday right before graduation. So please know that everything you're about to hear in my stream of consciousness, it all comes straight from the heart and the NyQuil.
It's eerie looking back now at early 2020, at how normal everything was. We'd go to class, hang out with friends in the Commons, do trivia at Level B, play Dungeons and Dragons, maybe study sometimes. We had no idea that, in March, everyone's lives would be turned upside down. I still remember getting the urgent email for all 3Ls to come to the law school to provide a handwriting sample for the bar exam and to clean out our lockers.
Nothing felt real. I remember talking to friends and thinking, we're going to shut down for two weeks, but then we'll be back soon. Right? It's almost funny looking back at that time, because it was pure apocalyptic dread mixed with everyday thoughts. I was thinking, oh my God. We're all going to die. But also, oh, should I return the dress I bought for Barristers then? It was a weird time.
I also remember when some of us started leaving Ithaca, and there was this feeling of, when am I ever going to see you again? Is this it? And I think even two years later, there's still this feeling of something unfinished. We didn't get a proper chance to say goodbye, to say, I'll see you again, or to say, thank you for being there for me. I also realized, in the past two years, it's not really goodbye, and it never really will be.
We've managed to stay in touch and support each other, despite sometimes being thousands of miles apart. We've celebrated each other's milestones, and we've held on to each other through the hard times. Class of 2020, we have been through so much together. I know many of us are learning how to find meaning in the relentless day in and day out nature of our jobs. And I have faith that, eventually, we will figure it all out together.
Whatever life throws at us, I know that, as a community, we will be there for each other, for the good and the bad. You are not alone. I am not alone. We are in this together.
Friends, family, faculty, and everyone else, thank you for helping our class make it through these unprecedented times. This has truly been an unforgettable experience. Class of 2020, congratulations. Stay healthy, do good, and laugh often. I wish you way more than luck.
JENS DAVID OLIN: Thank you, Jialin. It's now my pleasure to introduce our LLM speaker, Nanxi Zhao. Nanxi Zhao came to Cornell after completing her LLB at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou China and working as a commerce and finance legal intern.
At Cornell Law School, she served as the LLM representative to the Asian Pacific American Law Students Association. She now practices in the private equity and venture capital group at JunHe LLP in Beijing. Although she was not able to join us in person, she was kind enough to record her address honoring our LLM graduates and is watching the livestream of this ceremony from Beijing.
NANXI ZHAO: Good morning, distinguished guests, faculty, families, and of course, the Class of 2020 and 2021. After two years, we finally get a chance to hold our in-person commencement. I feel so lucky that I still have the honor to be a part of it. Several days ago, I received the invitation for commencement. That email enlightened my busy life as a lawyer, brought me back to the summer of 2019.
I still remember that I arrived at JFK with two giant suitcases all by myself. I still remember walking on the quiet path between Law School and Maplewood every day, recording the colors of each season. And I still remember how much I liked to sit in the slope, watching the big red athlete train themselves by rushing to the top.
Then COVID started, travel plan canceled, in-person class canceled, even our commencement canceled. Suddenly, my college life ended. In the past two years after graduation, I work as a lawyer in Beijing. The title Cornell graduate brings me lots of benefits in getting a decent job and being a part of a strong community.
But for me, what I cherished the most was the opportunity to see the world as one community. I am proud of my culture and my country. Meanwhile, the world becomes another origin of my sense of belonging. I will never forget my life in Cornell, where anyone's voice can be heard in the class, where we can make friends from all around the world.
Sometimes I invited friends to Chinese restaurants to share Chinese diet culture and know more about each other. Those are such beautiful memories. Recently, I attended a TV show about the Space Station and got a chance to see many pictures and videos taken by the Chinese astronauts. I was so touched by the views. The Planet Earth looks so fragile.
The atmosphere is so thin, but it's protecting billions of us. If we stand high enough to observe the planet, there is no borders on the continent, no boundaries, no walls. It's just us huddling together, facing the immense darkness of the universe. I realized my feelings about being together are so similar.
These years, the world becomes so different. The a global pandemic kept us grounded, brought physical barriers to one another, and even strengthened the bias in our heart. It sounds disappointing, but I believe hope always thrives from disappointment and desperation.
It's our mission, as Cornell graduates, to keep rushing to the top to see the whole picture, to be the power that fix cracks, builds bridges, and bring the world back together. My dear fellow graduates, tomorrow is in our hands. May we all find our way to the brightest future for ourselves and for the human community. Thank you. Happy graduation, and go Big Red.
JENS DAVID OLIN: Thank you, Nanxi. It is now my distinct pleasure to introduce our faculty speaker, selected by our graduating students to deliver today's address. Sheri Lynn Johnson is the James and Mark Flanagan Professor of Law and better known to generations of Cornell Law students for teaching 1L constitutional law and for directing Cornell's capital-- co-directing Cornell's capital punishment clinic. Over many years, I've benefited from hearing her words of wisdom and inspiration, and I can't wait to hear her speech. Professor Johnson, take it away.
SHERI LYNN JOHNSON: Thank you for the honor of choosing me to give the faculty address. I have to admit I wasn't quite sure what to say. This is not because I don't like to give advice.
But you have been out in the world for two years, and quasi-parental admonitions don't seem quite appropriate. So instead, I thought I would share some observations. No advice, just three observations linked by the theme of surprise. And maybe this makes it more appropriate for the LLMs. But first, I want to acknowledge that your class had an extraordinarily difficult experience here, both in the beginning of your time at Cornell and at the end.
Starting law school is always hard, but your class had a tougher first semester than any class I have ever seen. And I have seen 41 entering classes. I am sorry for that. And then your last semester was by far the hardest I have seen, shut down by the first wave of a devastating pandemic that most of you had to navigate on your own.
Trauma, fear, loneliness, loss. I won't minimize any of those things, but because they aren't really the right topic for a convocation speech, I am choosing to address surprise. Both the beginning and the end of your time in law school were really surprising as well as really hard. So I'm going to say a little bit about two things in my life that have surprised me and then finish with something which I hope will surprise you.
First, it is amazing how your life can take a completely unexpected but great turn if you let it. I never planned to be a death penalty lawyer. When I went to law school, I knew I wanted to be a public defender, but I grew up in Minnesota, where the death penalty was abolished in 1911. So I never thought about it.
Then after beginning my career as a public defender and coming to Cornell to teach, John Bloom, a death penalty lawyer from South Carolina came to the law school for what was supposed to be a single semester as a practitioner in residence. And before he left, we casually agree that we would teach a seminar together the following year. After that, I took one case. And then I took one more case. And somehow, he became a professor, and I became a death penalty lawyer.
For me, it was beautifully serendipitous, the perfect way to combine my interest in race discrimination against African Americans and my interest in criminal defense. But I certainly didn't plan it. Another example? I planned to have two children and to adopt two children. Well, my husband and I did have two, but one child led to another, and we adopted seven. And nothing in my life is more meaningful--
Nothing in my life is more meaningful than being the mother of my children, each of them, and my life would be far poorer without the last five. As Jose Manuel Barroso, former prime minister of Portugal said, "What people call serendipity is sometimes just having your eyes open." Thus, surprise number one is what can happen if you let go of the plan.
And surprise number two is that even harsh failures can lead to something good. 2014 was the worst year of my professional life. My client Ramiro Hernandez Llanas an intellectually disabled man who grew up on a toxic waste dump, was executed by the State of Texas. His execution was not only the loss of a human life but a legal, constitutional, and moral outrage, and for me, a bitter failure as a lawyer.
That same year, I was a candidate for the deanship at the Cornell Law School. And a month after Ramiro's execution, the dean was selected, and it wasn't me. I had lost the deanship of the law school at which I had spent my entire career. I felt humiliated. It was really, really hard even to come back into the building. And even now, it is hard for me to talk about.
But-- but-- nothing can bring back Ramiro. But his case brought me both to empirical work on bias against Latinos and to litigation of Latino defendant cases in Texas. It also led me to do the best I could to learn Spanish despite my age.
And as for losing the deanship, I never could have represented Curtis Flowers in the United States Supreme Court if I had become dean. Arguing Flowers was an incredible experience. I could not have wished for a better client or for issues that meant more to me, or for that matter, a case that would be more fun. All consequences, direct consequences of failure.
Probably because he was well acquainted with it, Prime Minister Winston Churchill had several pithy remarks about failure. "Success," he said, "is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm." A little more optimistically, he said, "Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts." And the one quote I like best? "If you're going through hell, keep going."
So after being surprised by what saying yes to serendipity can bring, and after being surprised at the redemption that failure can bring, I want to say, be surprised at greatness, maybe even your own. Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who knew they would be heroes? I think of my law school classmate Sonia Sotomayor. She grew up in stark poverty in the Bronx. She was quiet in law school. Who would have thought she would sit on the Supreme Court, have such a powerful presence, and make such an impact there?
And being a defense attorney, I have to add, she was also a prosecutor before she came to the court. Who would have imagined that she would become a great champion of the rights of criminal defendants? Or to look closer to home, when Professor Muna Ndulo was growing up, who knew he was going to help with a transition team in South Africa, run the elections in East Timor, negotiate for peace in Kosovo and Afghanistan, work with diplomats all over the world for justice?
So you could surprise yourselves too. Now I am going to quote someone not nearly as illustrious as prime ministers, Bon Jovi. Side note one, if you think quoting Bon Jovi dates me, not really, because actually I'm much older than Bon Jovi.
Side note two, Keir Weyble, my colleague and co-counsel in Flowers, the master of prose, thinks this is a musically dubious choice. And he is more likely to be right than I am about anything musical, not to mention much more likely to be right about prose.
And lawyering is a team sport. But regardless, dated and dubious, here it is. I love the lyrics from We Weren't Born to Follow. If you haven't seen the video, you should. It's a visual reminder of unplanned, unexpected heroism.
And now the words, "This one goes out to the man who mines for miracles. This one goes out to the ones in need. This road was paved by the hopeless and the hungry. This road was paved by the winds of change. Walking beside the guilty and the innocent, how will you raise your hand when they call your name?" You could surprise yourself. Be the one who mines for miracles. Raise your hand when they call your name."
JENS DAVID OLIN: Thank you so much, Sheri. As impressive as all of our speakers have been this morning, we now come to what I suspect will be the highlight for most of you in the arena, the formal recognition of our graduates. At this time, I'd like to turn these proceedings over to our dean of students.
MARKEISHA MINER: Thank you, Dean Olin. As our graduates approach the stage?
We begin this morning-- welcome. We begin this morning with our recipients of the degree of Master of Laws.
Following are the recipients of the degree of Master of Laws in law, technology and entrepreneurship. [? Asin ?] [? Arsoy ?] [? Inhasch ?] and Jenny Viklund.
Following are the candidates for the degree of Juris Doctor.
Morgan Lindsay Anastasio.
Family and friends, please join me in congratulating the Cornell Law School Class of 2020 and December 2021.
JENS DAVID OLIN: Congratulations to all of you. Before we conclude these proceedings, let us have one more round of applause, this time for the family and friends present here today. I know I speak--
I know I speak for all of you graduates when I say that, here in this arena with us this morning, are family members and friends who offered you more support and encouragement through your years as law students than we could possibly quantify. As we celebrate the enormous accomplishments of our graduates, we celebrate as well all who helped to make such accomplishments possible. So a well-earned round of applause. Thank you.
Please stand for the singing of the Alma Mater. The words appear in your program. Once we conclude the Alma Mater, please remain standing while the faculty recesses out of the arena. We hope you'll join us this afternoon back at the law school courtyard for a reception to celebrate our graduates beginning at 4:00 PM.
GROUP: (SINGING) Far above Cayuga's waters, with its waves of blue, stands our noble alma mater, glorious to view. Lift the chorus, speed it onward, loud her praises tell. Hail to thee, our alma mater. Hail, all hail to Cornell.
Far above the busy humming of the bustling town, reared against the arch of heaven, looks she proudly down. Lift the chorus, speed it onward, loud her praises tell. Hail to thee, our alma mater. Hail, all hail Cornell.
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