As University Senator, I made diversity my initiative for the year. One of the first steps towards understanding and assessing the state of diversity at CLS was to meet with various student groups and study the results of a survey conducted by student senate. After analyzing the responses, I used the findings to bolster diversity initiatives of various student groups. 

One of the initiatives of which I’m most proud is the Alumni Panel Series, which brings diverse alumni back to the Law School to discuss their experiences. The alumni series (sponsored by Student Senate, Student Services, and the Coalition of Identity Groups) became a reality with the help of Yadira Ramos-Herbert, Director of Academic Counseling and Student Outreach. Yadira worked with me to plan the programming, and is currently supporting the alumni series. 

On Monday, November 18, students gathered for the first panel, which was composed of alumni who had been the first in their family to go to law school. Ancris Ramdhanie, Faiza Sayed, Michael Fernandez, and Sarah Carley Ryan all spoke on the various issues that first-in-your-family lawyers face. Miguel Gradilla, CLS ’14, moderated the panel, as he is both a first-generation college graduate and law student.

The panelists spoke about socioeconomic struggles and how that impacted their time at Columbia. Ms. Ramdhanie, CLS ’04, who is a Senior Attorney in the Northeast District Counsel’s Office in New York where she practices financial services and banking law, recalled the daily two-hour commute she made from her home in the outer boroughs to Morningside Heights. During finals, she would sleep in her car or on a friend’s couch. Ms. Ramdhanie noted these struggles felt unique to her at the time, but upon graduating she realized some of her peers had similar struggles but had been too ashamed to speak about them. She encouraged everyone who was in attendance not to be shy about reaching out for help because that was often the only way help would be given.

Ms. Ryan, CLS ’05, a former associate at Davis Polk who is currently in-house counsel for Pepsi, spoke at length about the difficulties of adapting to the work environment when you are the first in your family to work in a corporate firm or as a public advocate. Ms. Sayed, CLS ’12, a Kirkland & Ellis New York City Public Service fellow who is currently clerking for the Hon. Kimba M. Wood at the Southern District of New York, emphatically stressed that while you may feel terrified, you must persist. Mr. Fernandez, CLS ’12, an associate at Stroock, agreed with this sentiment, and explained that whenever he was terrified he made sure to go above and beyond, because knowing he’d done more than was asked of him was a comfort and often caused him to exceed the expectations others had for him.

Finally, a student asked how to deal with the growing gap between their experiences and those of their families. Panelists’ answers were thoughtful and personal. They shared stories of how difficult it could be to explain their experiences to family members who had not even graduated high school, but encouraged each student to think of themselves as people and family, not just as lawyers, in those interactions. Becoming a mother, Ms. Ramhanie said, allowed her to find a new way to connect and relate to her mother—something she had been lacking when she became a lawyer. She went on to say that the gap was still a challenge and would continue to be, but provided helpful tips for working on these relationships.

The panelists provided personal insight that was well received by students in attendance. There will be three more Alumni Panels in the spring semester – including how to maintain your outside interests when you’re working at a firm, especially if you plan to exit; how to use your law school experience to prepare for life as a minority, LGBT, or female lawyer; and how to navigate the job recruitment process. The Alumni Panel Series will also sponsor a workshop on public speaking and cold-calling and a workshop on facing difficult situations during EIP.

Zila Acosta is a 2L. She is the University Senator, LaLSA Social Chair, and EWOC Secretary.

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