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‘Stay in the race:’ Judge, alum inspires Northeastern University School of Law graduates to pursue justice

Northeastern University celebrates its 2022 School of Law Commencement at Matthews Arena. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

U.S. District Judge Victoria A. Roberts has been a runner for most of her adult life. So, standing in historic Matthews Arena in front of an eager crowd of more than 250 Northeastern School of Law graduates, their friends and families, it made perfect sense that Roberts kicked off her Commencement address on Friday by regaling the crowd not with courtroom tales but with stories of her marathons––and the personal tragedy that almost stopped her dead in her tracks.

Roberts’ sister, Pat, died in 2005 shortly before Roberts, who now serves the eastern district of Michigan, was supposed to run the Detroit International Marathon with her other sister.

“After Pat died, try as I might, I could barely put one foot in front of the other,” Roberts said. “I was devastated.”

Northeastern University School of Law students celebrate their 2022 Commencement in style. Photos by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

After Roberts had given up on running that race, a law clerk and fellow runner convinced her to lace up her shoes, reluctantly put one foot in front of the other, and train with him for another marathon. On the day of the race, Roberts hit the streets with the rest of the runners and made it to mile 26, when she “developed an excruciating cramp in one leg that brought me to my knees.” 

Medics came running, but her friend waved them off, shouting at her, “I did not train you to end this way. Get up. Now.”

Despite the pain, Roberts finished the marathon. This past April, 17 years later, her daughter finished the Boston Marathon with the familiar look of anticipation, joy and exhaustion.

“So much of what you will do over the course of your legal careers may look and feel like my marathon race,” said Roberts, a 1976 School of Law graduate. “It is training, it is practice, it is limping and failing and falling and getting back up, it is learning from mistakes–and leaning on guardian angels and the kindness of strangers. And it’s a bit of luck.”

Roberts, whose 37-year-old son is a Special Olympics athlete with Down Syndrome, recited the Special Olympics motto to the crowd: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” Roberts, the only Black woman to have served as president of the State Bar of Michigan in its 87-year history, urged the crowd not to let “the challenges of practicing law ever defeat you.”  

“Stay in the race, as I did,” Roberts said.

Left: School of Law Dean James A. Hackney speaks at the 2022 School of Law Commencement. Right: Graduate Antonio Coronado was one of three students to speak at the School of Law Commencement on Friday. Photos by Matthew Modonno/Northeastern University and Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Dean James R. Hackney was confident the class of 2022 would rise to meet the challenge. Between the COVID-19 pandemic and a national racial reckoning, Hackney commended the graduating class on its “chutzpah” in facing the last three years head on.

“This is a class that embodies resilience and personifies excellence,” Hackney said. “These are attorneys who will chart new paths for our profession, who will not accept the status quo, who will demand of society and of themselves that we never settle, that we always fight for what is fair and what is right.”

Hailing from more than 17 countries, the class of 2022 walked into Matthews waving––and in some cases wearing––flags representing their various home countries, but they were united in their passion for social justice and human rights.

Antonio Coronado, one of three student speakers alongside juris doctor Aly McKnight and Master of Laws graduate Sofia Moquete, graduated with a juris doctor and graduate certificate in poverty law and economic justice on Friday. Coronado told his fellow graduates that the legal system does not always allow for what is fair and right, which only increases the need for innovative work. 

“As law students and, now, graduates, we are inheritors to legacies of legal harm, to a system that was not designed to serve everyone,” said Coronado, who was inducted into Northeastern’s Huntington 100. “It is because of movements—not motions––and liberation––not Latin––that I am able to stand on this very stage.”

For the sixth time, the faculty speaker during the School of Law’s Commencement was Lucy Williams, law professor and faculty director for the Center for Public Advocacy and Collaboration. Williams did not sugar coat things. She said meaningful, progressive work in law is “about how to push a rock uphill in the fight for social justice when the rock invariably comes crashing back down on you.” At the same time, Williams emphasized “the critical role your legal careers will play in the immediate future.”

“Lawyers will be needed––not years from now but months from now––to defend those seeking abortion services and those assisting them and then find themselves sued by bounty hunters or criminally prosecuted,” Williams said. “Lawyers are needed now to stand next to parents of transgender kids. Lawyers are needed now to push back against attempts to disenfranchise people of color. And many of you are going to be among those lawyers, and I know you can do this.”

School of Law graduates at the 2022 Commencement on Friday. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Hackney honored two retiring professors: Kristin Madison and Jim Rowan. Madison served five years as associate dean for academic affairs, while Rowan was a Northeastern faculty member for 42 years.

To close out Commencement, Hackney delivered his charge to the Class of 2022 law class: “In the journey that lies ahead, find new ways to extend your impact. Our world is beset by challenges and injustices that are complex beyond reckoning. Your capacity to solve them is limitless. The world needs your legal minds, your instinct for justice and your humanity.” 

Hackney’s words and the cheers and applause of family and friends echoed throughout Matthews, along with the strains of Majestic Brass, as the graduates exited, smiling, into the future.

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