Supreme Court Justice Jackson Shares “Survivor” Lessons With Law School Graduates

From a Washington Post story by Susan Svrluga headlined “Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson shares ‘Survivor’ lessons with law grads”:

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson told graduates at American University’s Washington College of Law commencement that she had reflected on her eclectic experiences in the years since her own graduation as she prepared the address, her first major public speech since becoming a Supreme Court justice.

“I stepped back and I looked deeply inside myself to try to figure out what to say,” she said. “And upon doing so, I realized exactly what it is that I wanted to talk to you about today: ‘Survivor.’”

“Yes, that’s right,” she said. “When I say ‘Survivor,’ I am indeed referring to the reality TV show where people are stranded on an island and compete to become the last person standing.”

Graduates and their families — some of whom may have been hoping that Jackson would hint at highly anticipated upcoming rulings on cases regarding voting rights, affirmative action and student debt, or reflect on public confidence in the Supreme Court after a tumultuous year — laughed.

“I am a ‘Survivor’ superfan,” Jackson said. “I have seen every episode since the second season, and I watch it with my husband and my daughters even now, which I will admit, it’s not easy to do with the demands of my day job,” she said, again getting a laugh, “but you have to set priorities, people.”

That was her first lesson: In a busy life, you can and should find time for the things you love. “And I love that show.”
The ceremony marked a joyful and lighthearted end to a degree program that had started for many there on screens in their bedrooms and basements all over the world in 2020, as student speaker Kimberly Salvadora Alli said, during unprecedented challenges to life and learning.

On Saturday, graduates with AU-blue gowns fluttering, and parents holding bouquets and balloons streamed across the American University campus in the sunshine. Inside, bagpipes piped, drums thumped, families hollered, calling out to graduates from the bleachers. (“Clap for me,” one graduate laughingly pleaded to audience members inside as she passed. “My mom’s shy.”)

Graduates marched with wingtip shoes, silver stilettos, scuffed thong sandals, sneakers colored in with markers in an elaborate pattern, and heels covered in stars-and-stripes glitter. Some danced, some pumped fists and one tapped slowly along with a cane, to huge cheers from classmates.

“This is one of the best days of our lives,” said Khamal Khan, there with his wife Aysha Khan and other family to see their daughter Shahnoor Khan, 23, of New York, one of two Juris Doctor students given the “outstanding graduate” award. And to hear Jackson? His eyes widened. “We are lucky to be here!”

Graduate Sudarsanan Sivakumar, 25, from Tamil Nadu, India, was beaming. “It’s an honor to hear her speak,” he said. “I know everyone feels that way!” he said emphatically, speaking for his nearly 400 fellow graduates, and repeated it. “I know everyone feels that way!”

In her speech, Jackson, the first Black woman justice, acknowledged that May is a very busy time at the Supreme Court and that she might not have carved out the time for a commencement speech if not for her decades-long close friendship with the school’s dean, Roger A. Fairfax, Jr.

He’s also quite persuasive, she said. “So when he turned to me and said, ‘Do this,’ I said, ‘Yes, sir!’”Jackson was a highlight of the university’s 145th commencement ceremonies, which included speeches by an array of leaders such as former Maryland governor Larry Hogan; Ted Leonsis, the founder and chief executive of Monumental Sports & Entertainment; and Julie Kent, artistic director of the Washington Ballet.

Jackson said she could not have imagined, at her own law-school graduation 27 years ago, that she would be where she is now. Even now, she said, after a whirlwind of a life, it’s hard to believe that she is on the Supreme Court. “I still wake up some mornings confused as to whether this is really happening to me or am I living in a dream,” she said.

She offered graduates three lessons, drawn from her own varied legal career — and, of course, “Survivor.” With examples from successful contestants on the show (and ample evidence to support her claim of being a superfan), she urged graduates to make the most of the resources they have.

She described working as an assistant federal public defender in Washington, handling appeals and feeling the defense side was perpetually out-resourced when litigating against the government. She also described a contestant with a prosthetic leg who struggled to get through a challenge involving a balance beam, falling repeatedly but trying again and again until she ultimately won.

“Now, none of the odds that I have personally faced thus far in my career have been that daunting,” Jackson said, “thanks in no small part to the civil-rights-era trailblazers who opened the doors for me and my generation. But I do know what it is like to commit to moving forward even when the deck is stacked against you.”

“You are enough,” she told graduates. “ … With patience, determination and grit and creativity, you’ll find a way.”

She advised them to know their strengths. “There are many ways to excel in the legal profession, and you do not need to become someone you are not. You do you,” she said. “Lean in to your personal strengths and use them to get you where you want to go.”

She learned this when she transitioned from an appellate lawyer to a trial judge, feeling out of her element, she said, but drawing on skills she knew she had even on her high school speech and debate team. And she saw it in a contestant who described herself as a couch potato and didn’t try to become a fearsome physical competitor but relied on her emotional intelligence and earned others’ trust.

Her last lesson was to play the long game, just as the winners on “Survivor” do. “You will need to build alliances, stay optimistic, remain levelheaded. You will have to disagree without being disagreeable. And it will be important to see things from others’ perspectives and to work hard to keep everyone on board.”

And she ended with one of her favorite moments from the show, when the host holds up one hand, says, “‘Survivors ready? Go,’” she said, showing them how he gestures the dynamic charge to start each challenge. She told the graduates, pausing between each word: “You are ready.”

Susan Svrluga is a reporter covering higher education for The Washington Post. Before that, she covered education and local news at The Post.

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