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Sherrilyn Ifill Inspires WCL Graduates at Historic Commencement

A Celebration of Resilience and Justice One Day After the 70th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education

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Sherrilyn Ifill
Sherrilyn Ifill, a renowned civil rights lawyer and scholar, connected the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education with the graduates' future roles in shaping justice and democracy. (PHOTO: K.Pierce)

This past Saturday, one day after the 70th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the ѿý Washington College of Law (AUWCL) held its commencement ceremony, commemorating the achievements of its graduates. The occasion was marked by an inspiring address from Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel emerita of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), whose words resonated deeply with the graduates, families, and faculty.

"I want to congratulate you on the monumental accomplishment of making it here today. I know it hasn’t been easy," she said, emphasizing the uniqueness of their journey. "Much has been written about your cohort making it through the COVID years. Many of you missed college graduation and started law school during the early months of our release from quarantine. You made it through all of that," Ifill began, setting a tone of resilience and achievement.

ѿý President Sylvia Burwell set the tone for the day by praising the graduates' achievements.

"We celebrate you and your accomplishments during your time here," she said in her opening remarks. "We celebrate all you have brought to this university—with incredible energy, intellect, and passion—as well as what you will take forward."

In his final commencement as dean of AUWCL, Roger A. Fairfax Jr., echoed those sentiments, highlighting the lasting impact the graduates would have on the world.

Dean Fairfax at podium
Dean Roger A. Fairsfax Jr. (PHOTO: K. Pierce)

"One of my favorite aspects of commencement is seeing our graduates reflected in the eyes of their loved ones," he said. "Graduates, long after we are gone, you and your contributions will live on and shape the path of justice, impact the lives of others for generations to come, and that is how we touch the future."

The ceremony was a testament to the resilience and determination of the graduates, who have navigated unprecedented challenges during their academic journey. Quinelle Bethelmie, who was honored to serve as the student speaker, captured this spirit eloquently.

Student Speaker Quinelle Bethelmie
Quinelle Bethelmie JD '24 (PHOTO: H. Schwab)

"We come from far and wide and different paths to arrive here, but we were uniquely united by a shared global experience," Bethelmie expressed, reflecting on the challenges and triumphs faced during their time at AUWCL. "We endured a year of unprecedented isolation, yet emerged in record numbers with a common aspiration to join the legal profession. A bastion of society founded on principles of reason, justice, and remedy."

Bethelmie also reflected on the significant events that occurred during their time at AUWCL.

"In our time as students, we've seen historical precedent struck down, Roe v. Wade overturned just months after we studied it," she said. "We've read opinions that dismayed us. We've watched each of the three rays of the political circus put on a show, lives hanging in the balance."

Bethelmie continued by emphasizing the responsibility that comes with their education saying, "By embracing our purposes and principles, meeting challenges head-on, and safeguarding our legal heritage, we have a responsibility to ensure a system where wrongs are righted, harms, remedies, and justices served."

In her powerful speech, Ifill, a renowned civil rights lawyer and scholar, connected the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education with the graduates' future roles in shaping justice and democracy.

"Like many of your parents, I too dreamed of giving my children a world that was better than I inherited. And it appears now that it was not meant to be," she said, underscoring the significance of the moment. "But I have also seen the courage, resilience, and determination of my clients."

Ifill reminded the graduates of their power and responsibility as future lawyers.

"We are lawyers; lawyers are leaders whether we like it or not," she explained. "And the legal profession and the justice system in which lawyers operate is critical to the health of every democracy. There is no healthy democracy in the world without a functioning legal system."

In her closing, Ifill left the graduates with a powerful message.

"My charge to you is that you believe that we can be framers and founders of the new America that I believe this moment is inviting us to create, "she said. "We need lawyers prepared to take up the work of building a strong democratic foundation. Lawyers who are resolute and ethical. Lawyers who are determined to create a justice system that is just, that is resilient, that is fair, and that advances our democracy. I know that WCL has prepared you to be that kind of lawyer. I am counting on you to become what your country and your profession need now. Congratulations to the Class of 2024!"

Sylvia Burwell closed the ceremony with words of encouragement, telling the graduates to, "Continue to learn. Seek places to have impact. Don't forget the fun."

Smiling graduates
Excited Class of 2024 graduates before the ceremony. (PHOTO: H. Schwab)

The 427 graduates, including 357 JD, 46 LLM, 22 MLS, and 2 SJD alumna, left the ceremony not just with degrees, but with a renewed sense of purpose and a commitment to justice that will guide their future endeavors. Despite the rain, the day was a celebration of resilience, achievement, and the enduring pursuit of justice.

~ Story by Keith Pierce

~ See the full photo gallery .