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Mass. AG to law graduates: Your education ‘belongs to our whole community’

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, L’98, on Friday urged the Northeastern University School of Law’s newest graduates to believe in themselves, embrace uncertainty, and remember that their education belongs just as much to the entire community as it does to themselves.

“When you leave here, you leave with the knowledge, the training, the relationships that have prepared you to be a difference maker, to leave your mark on this world,” Healey told them. “But I challenge all of you, as you leave here and begin your careers in the law to think carefully about what that mark and what that difference will be, because your Northeastern education is too valuable to belong only to you. The law you practice won’t just be yours. It will belong to our whole community.”

“Your co-ops,” she added, “have shown you the many different ways you can use the law to serve.”

Healey delivered the Commencement address and received an honorary degree at the law school’s graduation ceremony, which was held at Matthews Arena. Northeastern conferred Juris Doctor and Master of Laws degrees upon some 200 graduates, who were joined at Commencement by university leaders, faculty, staff, students, families, and friends.

Healey, who was elected in November and is the country’s first openly gay attorney general, noted that her Northeastern experience has played a pivotal role in her self-confidence and career success. She pointed to the university’s commitment to values like public interest, social justice, equality, and diversity. “The values that I learned in this law school are the values that not only have driven me throughout my career,” she said, “but they are also the values that made possible my career.”

Healey also used her Commencement address to tell a story she’d never told before, recalling when she was first coming out and was struggling because there was no gay marriage yet and discrimination against gays and lesbians in America was still normalized. But when she arrived on Northeastern’s campus, she felt accepted. “It was okay, because this was a school, that to its very fiber, of its faculty, its curriculum, and its student body, celebrates equality and diversity,” she said, adding that her Northeastern experience gave her the footing to go forward in her career and be herself.

“The law you practice won’t just be yours. It will belong to our whole community.” – Maura Healey, L’98

During her career, Healey has successfully challenged the Defense of Marriage Act in federal court before the Supreme Court struck it down. She helped homeowners who were victims of the mortgage crisis by shutting down predatory mortgage lenders in Massachusetts and overseeing a team that worked with homeowners to help make their loans affordable. She also helped defend the state’s buffer zone law that put boundaries around anti-abortion protests at reproductive health centers.

Healey noted that the first brief she filed as attorney general was on behalf of Massachusetts joined by other states fighting for marriage equality. A few weeks ago she traveled to Washington to witness another Northeastern lawyer—Mary Bonauto, L’87—argue the case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Any day now we’re going to get a ruling, and I’m optimistic,” Healey said. “Those are Northeastern values. That’s what this school makes possible.”

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President Joseph E. Aoun, who presided over Commencement, noted that Healey “embodies the highest values and highest principles of jurisprudence.” In his charge to the graduates, Aoun said, “Her wise leadership on issues such as equal rights and gun violence prevention has had a tremendous impact. Now it is your turn.”

Aoun urged graduates to “go against the grain” to follow their passions, take risks, and learn from the world, and he identified two law graduates who have already done so. Mayumi Grigsby, L’15, left her native Liberia as it fell into civil war, ultimately arriving in the United States. Though she would return to Africa to work for the good of her homeland, she realized that a law degree would empower her to help others. Aoun said another graduate, Kyle Rapiñan, L’15, was once homeless and never forgot how people helped him overcome his struggles. Determined to help others do the same, Rapiñan founded a nonprofit to help homeless LGBT youth, and then earned his law degree so he could fight for the rights of people who are discriminated against, displaced, and impoverished.

Aoun also noted how law professor Margaret Burnham is going against the grain to “bring hope to the world” through the law school’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, which conducts research and supports policy initiatives related to miscarriages of justice in U.S. civil rights cases from the 1950s to the early 1970s, particularly in the South.

“Graduates, your legal training is a powerful tool,” Aoun said. “Be creative in how you use it. Many people hunger for justice, and they will crave your guidance. Your education is a gift of many parts—it has given you knowledge and discernment. Truth, fairness, and the mending of injustice—these are the ends for which you have trained so hard.”

In welcome remarks, School of Law Dean Jeremy Paul reflected fondly on how both he and the Class of 2015 entered Northeastern three years ago. He hailed the graduates’ many accomplishments and singled out one in particular, Sara Kominers, whom the ACLU honored this week for helping an 11-year-old avoid paying for a police detail to hold a rally protesting recent police shootings.

This year’s graduates, Paul said, have collectively completed more than 250,000 hours of legal work at 680 co-op placements across eight countries. These experiences have included protecting civil rights and civil liberties at various advocacy organizations; working at international criminal tribunals, United Nations commissions, and nongovernmental organizations throughout the world; and creating their own co-ops at both startups and large companies. “You came to Northeastern because you wanted to make a difference, and you are already doing so,” Paul said.

Professor Daniel Medwed, an expert in criminal law and a renowned scholar on the topic of wrongful convictions, delivered the faculty address. His speech focused on his favorite character trait: moxie. He described moxie as a blend of assertiveness, savvy, stealth, flexibility, and creativity. He explained how this trait can be critical to success, recalling how he used it to land a job at Northeastern eight years after his first attempt. “Channel you’re inner moxie,” Medwed said, “because I want to see you thrive.”

“Truth, fairness, and the mending of injustice—these are the ends for which you have trained so hard.” – President Joseph E. Aoun

Three students—Ernest Nwachan, Emma Hunter, and Kenneth Kaufman, all L’15—also addressed their fellow law graduates at Commencement. Nwachan has been a practicing attorney since 2003, having served with the United Nations in Sierra Leone, Sudan, and Afghanistan. After obtaining his master’s degree in Peace and Conflict Studies, he choose Northeastern’s LLM program because it offers multiple areas of concentration and experiential learning opportunities.

He noted that his time at Northeastern has been both challenging and rewarding—“in short, a life-changing experience.” To his fellow graduates, Nwachan said, “As we prepare to go out today and contribute to nation building, now is the time to ask ourselves, ‘How can we contribute to the common good and give voice to the voiceless in our community?’”

Hunter urged her fellow graduates to draw inspiration from the “Notorious RBG”—U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Hunter quoted Ginsburg, explaining how she would like to be remembered: “Someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability. And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has.” “The titles of our future positions may affect salary, perceived social standing, and other societal elements, but for each of us graduating today, we must remember that we are all capable of affecting positive social change through our responsibilities to our clients,” Hunter said. “In fact this is our social responsibility. This is our NUSL legacy.”

For his part, Kaufman drew parallels between the graduates’ journey through law school and the journey of Harry Potter in J.K. Rowling’s globally beloved novels. He noted that like Harry, who came of age at Hogwarts, he and his fellow graduates have come of age at Northeastern.

“Our world views, like Harry’s, have also been shaped by our professors, from whom we have learned the importance of remaining true to our values, and of advocating on behalf of those less fortunate,” Kaufman said. He added that the law school’s professors have instilled in the graduating class the importance of identifying and confronting these injustices, such as those apparent from recent events in Baltimore, and Ferguson, Missouri. To do so, he said, “it is necessary that we engage and respect those who see the world differently.”

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