Nykeah L. Cohen was selected to give the 2012 Commencement Student Address, held at the Bank United Center on May 12, by a committee comprised of her fellow law students, faculty and administrators. Prior to pursuing law school, she returned to her alma mater, Miami Northwestern Senior High School, as a language arts instructor to make a difference in the lives of students in the classroom setting. Ms. Cohen impacted many lives not only through her classroom instruction, but also through the creation of several longstanding educational initiatives. One such program, "The Link Initiative," impacted the lives of over 50 students by helping them to successfully matriculate at post-secondary institutions. For her efforts she was recognized as her Region's Rookie Teacher of the Year and the District Runner-Up.
At Miami Law, Ms. Cohen found her niche as a standout student trial advocate, receiving the top two awards in the Litigation Skills program - the Thomas Ewald Memorial Litigation Skills "Book Award" and the $10,000 Kozyak, Tropin & Throckmorton Scholarship - only the second time that a Miami Law student has received both honors. As a member of the University of Miami Mock Trial Team, she was named "Best Closer" at the March Madness Regional Closing Argument Competition, "Best Cross Examiner" at the Fordham University School of Law Kelly Trial Advocacy Invitational, and was designated among the "Elite 8" as a Regional Semi-Finalist in the Texas Young Lawyers Association National Trial Competition. Her on-campus involvement spans beyond trial advocacy. She was also a member of The Society of Bar and Gavel, the Honor Council, the Election Commission, Student Ambassadors, the Black Law Students Association, member of the Center for Ethics and Public Service Professional Responsibility Clinic, and former member of the Children and Youth Law Clinic.
Ms. Cohen hopes to one day emerge as a top-notch litigator advocating for the rights of the underrepresented.
Ms. Cohen's speech
It was a Monday, about 10 a.m.; the month – August; the year – 2009. The South Florida sun was blazing ahead of us, our hearts racing with excitement and fear. We walked into the Gusman Hall on what would be the first day of orientation. We filed into rows, most of us not knowing our neighbors, looking for a remotely familiar face. We watched a skit put on by the orientation committee, heard from a few professors, and watched closely as a well-dressed woman in a sharp pants suit stood before us. She introduced herself as Dean White.
It was on this Monday morning that we all heard Dean White tell us the familiar phrase, "look to your right – now, look to your left." Now almost robotically we sized up the girl to our right, or the guy to our left, thinking we had quite possibly heard this one too many times before. But what we didn't realize on that day was that we were about to embark on a whirlwind, a journey that would change the course of the rest of our lives, and change the very way we viewed the world around us. You see, it was that day that we began our journey at the University of Miami School of Law.
We continued to look to our right, and maybe again to our left, and then at the computer screen in confusion – the day that we learned that we had 160 pages of homework to read before the first day of classes. When we realized that each word required us to grab our "Black's Law Dictionary" or even "Google" because we had no clue what they meant. When we realized that a book of 1,000 pages could actually have no pictures. When we looked up from our library cubbyholes as if to ask our classmates, "Am I going crazy, or is the law written in Gaelic?" When we realized that yes, you can read an entire case and have absolutely no clue what you just read. When we realized that legalese was a certified language – and you know what, we actually learned to speak that language. So if we told you something wasn't "reasonable, generally, bona fide, it depended, per se" – now you know why!
Then came the first day of classes, or perhaps the second, or the third, when some of us weren't looking to our right – neither to our left – but instead looking down, trying hard not to be noticed. Holding our breaths for just a moment, thinking that the slightest of movements would capture the professor's attention. We prayed, we chanted, we perspired, repeating almost in unison, "Please don't call on me, please don't call on me, please don't call on me." We were experiencing the wrath of the Socratic method, the one that chewed you up with a complex legal question that sounded like, "What was the issue in Brady v. Maryland?" And then, without warning, spit you out when your mind went completely blank and the words morphed in front of you. When your fingers searched for the answer that you knew you highlighted in orange the night before but couldn't seem to find when you needed it most, when all eyes were fixed on the back of your neck because your right answer – yes, your right answer – would end world hunger, resolve Obamacare and expand the menu at Subway. It would be years later that you would realize that everyone was staring at you, because you were on call, and not them.
In time we looked ahead of us, searching for more truths, proud of the day that we put on our suits and ties because we were on call in Professor Alfieri's class; when we learned that Bachman Turner Overdrive's "Takin' Care of Business Every Day" was really a song about General Jurisdiction (thanks, Professor Beardslee); when we rushed to the Bricks to share stories about "The Artist Formerly Known As Professor Bascuas – The Man. The Myth. The Legend." We were mesmerized by the brilliance of Professor Copeland, motivated by the multitasking genius of Dean Cox; welcomed and continuously supported by our head of student recruitment, Therese Lambert; and were admonished and constantly reminded of the keys to success by our wonderful Dean VanderWyden – character and fitness.
We learned that gunners didn't own guns, but in fact were the very astute, who eagerly wanted to chime in to class discussions, who raised their hands again and again and again, even before the professor asked the next question. We learned to love and appreciate them because they were the ones who stood on the front lines – and kept the rest of us from being called on. So to all of the gunners out there – we salute you this morning.
We learned that supplements were our friends, and Facebooking, "g-chatting," and on-line shopping during class sometimes our foes. We learned that yes, you could learn almost any subject in three days – and that the jury would still be out on the question of "elements" three years later. We learned that the Bricks was a force field all its own – one might call it a black hole. This black hole would strap you down, force you to people watch, and dare you to change your location. So we sat. We watched. And many times, we were conquered.
Yet, here we sit, three years later, and I dare ask the question, "Have we truly realized the power possessed by those who sit to our right and who sit to our left?" You see, to our right are scholars, master editors and writers on law reviews, members of nationally recognized and ranked Moot Court boards, trial team champions, and H.O.P.E. fellows, members of clinics who have traveled to countries like Haiti to render assistance, who fought for health care benefits for the elderly, who advocated on behalf of foster care youths, who helped many in Miami find financial freedom, who pushed the importance of professional responsibility, who celebrated historic black churches, who hit the streets to legally educate our youths. We were represented at The Hague this year, and have traveled all over the world to further our legal studies. Our accomplishments range from Florida Supreme Court internships to Skadden fellowships. We have blazed trails!
To our left are survivors. Strong. Determined. Driven. We are individuals who have not allowed life's stumbling blocks to deter our destined greatness. We are individuals like Tyler Kirk, who showed us all that excuses should stop at the front door. Like Jihan Soloman, who showed us that fearless drive can break any barrier. Like Quinshawna Landon, who showed us all that nothing can substitute for hard work. We are first generation law students and future lawyers, some even hailing from Miami's own Liberty City. We are the sons and daughters of movers and shakers who stand to carry the torch, and who are just a little bit better. We are street lawyers, future politicians. We are public interest warriors, we are future partners of major firms. We are here.
So now, my esteemed colleagues of the University of Miami School of Law, the only thing that's left to do is to look within. You see, we must recognize the true power and strength that we all possess. That we are not here by happenstance. That we have been given this gift to help, to motivate, to lend a hand to those around us. We must never forget from whence we've come. Recognizing that many have fought and died for us to have the opportunity to choose our own paths. We must remember that life is not promised, so we must make each day and each moment count. We must remain hungry, never settling, always striving to make our better our very best. Times are difficult, and the job market bleak. But remember why we came to law school. Remember that all who sit here today earned this honor. So I encourage you, like Dean White encouraged all of us on the very first day of law school, to look to your right and look to your left, and to realize that we are forever connected. Despite our backgrounds, our differences and our futures, we have shared a common experience that no one could ever take from us. We are champions. And finally, we are the University of Miami School of Law, class of 2012, and I have to admit it – and take a minute to brush my shoulders off; I encourage you all to do the same – we invented legal swagger!
So hats off to you all, and congratulations!
Ms. Cohen's speech was followed by remarks from Dean Patricia D. White
That young woman stole all my thunder, and so I'm only going to say one thing, other than that was phenomenal. Everything you said was just right, Nykeah. Thank you.
The only thing that I will add is to put where you are today in a broader perspective. You are equipped now with a set of skills, with knowledge, with experience, that put you – in the world's population – in the top 1 percent of educated people. Ninety-nine percent of the world's population has less education than you do. Clearly, an even smaller percentage have the special tools and skills that you have as trained lawyers. With that special privilege comes enormous responsibility, and you must all remember that you – and we here – are where we are today because of a combination of talent, hard work and the luck of our birth, and where we were born.
So I ask you all to keep that broader perspective in mind as you embark on your careers, to make a difference in this world, and to make the most of what you have earned and what you have been given.
Good luck, and congratulations to all of you.