As she danced—literally—off the Carnesecca Arena stage to the crowd’s applause, Tina Kassangana '19 took in her first few moments as a St. John’s Law graduate.
It was a milestone occasion she shared with 221 other J.D. candidates, 78 LL.M candidates, and thousands of guests, including many Law School alumni, who came together for Commencement Exercises on Sunday, June 2, 2019.
Kassangana had dreamed of being a lawyer since she first took the advocate’s podium as a participant in her Catholic middle school’s mock trial program. Her team’s coach was then-St. John’s Law Professor, now Dean, Michael A. Simons. That formative connection came full circle for Kassangana as she listened to Dean Simons’ parting message to her graduating Class of 2019.
“The Law School you’re graduating from today is stronger and better than ever, with a higher academic profile, an increased ranking, one of the highest bar passage rates in the state, and one of the best employment rates in the country,” Dean Simons said. Those achievements would not be possible, he continued, without the unwavering support of the University leadership, dedicated Law School faculty, and loyal St. John’s Law alumni.
As they officially join St. John’s alumni family, the graduates can be proud of the practical skills and knowledge they gained “reading thousands of cases, sitting through hundreds of classes, writing countless papers and outlines, and taking dozens of exams,” Dean Simons noted. They also proudly served St. John’s Vincentian mission of uplifting the poor and marginalized by devoting 50,000 of their own time to pro bono and public service work. Along the way, he said, they became lawyers who are ready to seize the opportunity to do good and to use the power of the profession as a means to achieve justice.
That same commitment to serving the public and advocating for justice has defined the career of Jeh Charles Johnson, the former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security. He took the stage to receive an honorary Doctor of Laws before addressing the graduates as this year’s Commencement speaker.
View Commencement 2019 Photo GalleryRead Secretary Jeh C. Johnson’s RemarksWatch Commencement Video
Raised in Corona, Queens and Poughkeepsie, NY, Secretary Johnson has been a trailblazer throughout his life. After graduating from Columbia Law and prosecuting public corruption cases as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York, he became the first African-American partner in the 119-year history of Paul Weiss, one of the nation’s preeminent law firms.
That would have been accomplishment enough for any lawyer. But in the finest tradition of generations of lawyer-statesmen, Secretary Johnson has been a tireless public servant who has grappled with some of the most complex and pressing problems of the day—counter-terrorism, civil rights, immigration—and helped to shape solutions that future generations will view as true to their country’s core values.
Addressing the graduates, Secretary Johnson said: “Today you enter what is in my view the finest and most consequential profession in our nation.” He also observed that they were making that entrance at a pivotal time in their country’s history, and asked, “What can we do? What can we in this room do?”
In answer, Secretary Johnson told the graduates that they must re-dedicate themselves to four core principles of their profession. First: Your word is your bond. Second: There must be no compromise in our demands for truth and accuracy. Third, he said, “We must rededicate ourselves to the sanctity of the attorney-client privilege, and the protection of client confidences.” Fourth: Treat others with respect. “Tolerate and celebrate the diversity of this nation,” he appealed, adding, “Respect those who are different, and encourage others to do the same.”
In closing, Secretary Johnson urged the graduates to serve the public interest during their legal careers. “No matter what else I do for the remainder of my private life,” he said, “my public service will be the first paragraph of my obituary. It occupies the entirety of the scrapbook that I will one day pass to my kids.”
Secretary John’s words resonated with Tina Kassangana. “On a day that’s filled with such accomplishment and emotion, Secretary Johnson shared an important message that we all needed to hear,” she said. “His words were more than inspirational; they were a call to action. He gave us a clear vision of who we are as attorneys, who we are as people, and who we are to the world.”
The candidates then came on stage for the traditional hooding ceremony and conferral of their degrees. Several were recognized for achieving top honors in their graduating class:Daniel Fitzpatrick Randazzo '19 received the Joseph Kerzner award for achieving the highest cumulative grade point average in the J.D. program.Kate Elizabeth Mirino '19 earned the Esterina Giuliani Award for the highest cumulative grade point average in the Evening Division.Ronald David Howard '19LL.M. and Binqiang Fu '19LL.M. received awards for earning the highest cumulative grade point average in the Bankruptcy and Transnational Legal Practice LL.M. programs, respectively. And Xinye Xiong '19LL.M. received top honors in the U.S. Legal Studies LL.M. program.
This year’s Commencement Exercises were dedicated to the memory of David Ferraro '20, an evening student who died in a tragic accident in May. During the ceremony, Dean Simons welcomed his family on stage and presented them with David’s law degree, posthumously awarded honoris causa.
Reflecting on the Commencement Exercises, Max Bartell '19 said it was very moving to share the milestone with his family members, who are the bedrock of his, and every student’s, success during their years at St. John’s Law. He also took Secretary Johnson’s message to heart, saying, “It’s timeless guidance, and will continue to be a lodestar as I build a meaningful and rewarding career in the law.”