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Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta Delivers Commencement Address at New York University School of Law


New York, NY
United States

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Good morning. Thank you for that lovely introduction and warm welcome. Congratulations, Class of 2022.

It’s good to be back in New York. And it’s especially good to be with my NYU Law community as we continue to reel from the horrific violence in Buffalo last weekend. The Justice Department is investigating this tragedy as a hate crime and an act of racially motivated violent extremism. As we mourn for the victims and their families, we must do all that we can to reject hatred and honor our shared humanity.

Dean Morrison; Chair David Tanner; distinguished faculty, trustees and administrators, thank you. Fellow alumni, and proud family members, mentors and friends — thank you for the great honor of speaking before you on this momentous day.

Dean Morrison, all of us who love this law school are grateful for your decade of service and stewardship. And congratulations to incoming Dean Troy MacKenzie who was one year above me in law school!

When I told my kids I was traveling to NYU for the commencement, they thought I was coming to listen to Taylor Swift. They were sorely disappointed and felt bad for all of you when I told them I was giving this speech instead.

When I sat in your seats more than two decades ago, I remember feeling a mixture of excitement, apprehension, awe — and utter relief. I was the first person in my family to go to law school, and for much of my first year, I felt like a fish out of water. Like I didn’t belong.

Professor Kim Taylor-Thompson encouraged me to stick it out when I thought I might leave. NYU Law professors like her, Randy Hertz, and so many others remain inspirations to me.

So, I want you to look around. To think about who those people are for you. Look at your family, your friends, your professors who support you. Look at this incredible community that surrounds you.

This network, and the extraordinary legal education you received here, will be some of the most important assets in your professional and personal lives. Lean on that. Let others lean on you, too.  

Starting today, our society will look to you — will count on you — to transform our values into real protections for people. That’s an awesome — and daunting — responsibility. So, I want to share three words that I hope will serve you by reminding you not only about the kind of lawyer you want to be, but the kind of person you want to be.

They are purpose, courage and kindness.

First: Know your purpose. Let it guide you in all you do.

I stand before you today from the Department of Justice, where I am the first daughter of immigrants to serve in my position. From early on, my family’s story has motivated my career in public service.

My parents emigrated from India to the United States — my father on a scholarship for his master’s degree. But, as a precondition, my grandmother said he had to get married. And so just three days before he left India, he married my mother. They barely knew each other at the time, but they landed in snowy Ithaca. My mother learned English in her 20s, and together they raised two firebrand daughters. Here we are 53 years later.

My husband’s parents also modeled that resiliency. They fled Vietnam on a boat with four children in tow the night before Saigon fell to the Communist regime. My husband was only one month old. They lived in a refugee camp in Guam before coming to the United States to build new lives.

My family’s courage, their struggles, their leaving behind the familiar to provide for their children — that’s what animates my work every day. That’s what drives my purpose, which for me is a fierce commitment to ensuring that opportunity is within reach and that justice is real for everyone, regardless of color or creed or circumstance. My parents taught me that loving this country means doing the necessary work to make it better.

It may take time to figure out your purpose; what you stand for and what drives you to act, rather than stay complacent. You may not have all the answers now. But when you find it, your purpose will be your lifeboat when times get tough. And graduates, I won’t sugarcoat it: You are embarking on your careers in a world of extraordinary challenges.

Your time in law school has been marked by a global pandemic, George Floyd’s murder and global protests that ensued, and an unprecedented attack on the seat of our democracy on January 6. During the last few years alone, the rule of law has been challenged. Our democracy has been challenged. And longstanding precedent upholding our fundamental freedoms is being challenged. I want a future where the next generation has more rights, not fewer, don’t you?

These challenges aren’t new. Throughout history, the law has justified what Dr. King called America’s “long night of racial injustice.” Through slavery and Jim Crow and so much more, the law codified exclusion, discrimination and racial terror.

But the beauty of this country and the promise of our legal framework is not that we are perfect, but that we never stop trying to live up to our highest ideals. We can change. We can make progress when people roll up their sleeves, reject cynicism, and work to close the gap between what the law guarantees on paper and what people experience in their lives.

Those people don’t fall from the sky. They are you.

Believe that because it is true. And when the weight of the work or state of the nation feels overwhelming, do not despair. Always remember that hope is a discipline; you must practice it every day.

No matter what path you take, keep faith in your purpose, in the people around you and in the power of this profession to make extraordinary change.

Second, be courageous.

As a 26-year-old newly minted attorney, my first cases took me to a small town called Tulia, Texas.

I had a fellowship at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF). Just a few months out of law school and still awaiting my bar results, I saw a 10-minute documentary about 46 people — more than 12% of Tulia’s adult Black population — who had been convicted on sham evidence in a drug sting. I was outraged. I wanted to act.

I immediately wrote a memo to the head of LDF laying out all the facts I knew and got the greenlight to investigate.

Before I knew it, I was driving for hours on the flat highways of Texas, going from prison to prison, visiting my soon-to-be clients who generously agreed to allow me to be their lawyer — after overcoming their initial shock at seeing someone who looked like she was 14 years old.

In Tulia, I knocked on door after door. And I would get one recurring question: Are you related to Dr. Sanjay Gupta on CNN? To this day, I’ve never met him. But when I do, I’ll have to thank him for opening a lot of doors for me in Tulia, Texas.

I met with my clients’ families, who displayed overwhelming courage. I stayed up nights literally terrified that I was missing deadlines to file petitions to get my clients’ cases back in court. I had moments of panic that I was in over my head. And, at times, I was in over my head.

Eventually, I assembled a team that included pro bono lawyers from top firms — including tapping into my NYU Law family — and we tried to leave no stone unturned.

Two years later, in 2003, then-Governor Rick Perry pardoned our clients, finally setting them free.

The most meaningful things I’ve ever done have been in times like these — when I’ve been out of my comfort zone and found a path forward when none seemed possible.

No matter where you practice law, you will have opportunities to pursue justice and serve the public good. Find the courage to take them, even when it feels like you don’t know what you’re doing or like the odds are stacked against your clients.

Finally, remember to be kind.

That means looking up from your screens now and then and being present with friends and family; with colleagues and clients, even when your job gets stressful.

Kindness also means listening – really listening. That extends to those you don’t see eye to eye with, too. So much that we have taken for granted is now up for debate and much of that debate is coarse, even angry. But listening to those you disagree with — and being respectful as you do — will make you a better advocate, lawyer and person. I promise.

This world can be hard, and this profession can be harsh. Be kind to yourself, too.

Remember all that you have accomplished by getting here today.

Remember all that you are outside of being a law school graduate and soon-to-be attorney.

And remember all who helped you get here today. Hold them close. Thank them. We must take time to care for each other.

As the proud mother of two boys, trying to be there for my friends, wanting to call my parents more often, even with a husband who does so much day-in and day-out to support me, I still struggle with the “work-life balance” issue every day. It isn’t easy. You won’t always get it right. Be gentle with yourself when you don’t. And keep trying.

In a few moments, when your names are called, you will earn a degree that is years, or maybe even generations, in the making. It confers on you a special privilege and responsibility. Be wise in how you exercise it. And be fearless in advancing this profession’s highest ideals.

On problems once considered intractable and progress once seen as unimaginable, at this profession’s proudest moments — even in a profession predicated on preservation of the status quo — lawyers have continued to take risks to shape our country into a more perfect union.

I know you will build on that legacy.

We’ll need your talent in the days ahead. We’ll need your conviction. Your hope.

Class of 2022: looking out at you fills me with hope.

If you find your purpose and lead with courage and kindness, I know you will change this profession and this world for the better. 

Congratulations; I wish you all the very best of luck!

Updated May 19, 2022