The following remarks were given by Hon. Rolando T. Acosta CC’79, LAW’82, who served as the keynote speaker for Columbia College's first-ever virtual Class Day ceremony on May 19, 2020.
I am honored to be speaking to you, albeit from afar during these strange and challenging times. Little did I know when I accepted Deantini’s invitation to speak to the Columbia College 2020 Class, that it would be in a virtual ceremony during a global pandemic that has touched all aspects of our personal and community life—including our health, civic, social, work, academic, faith, and financial systems.
I know you must all be disappointed to be unable to attend a traditional in-person ceremony with your loved ones; and, as a child of immigrants who sacrificed everything for me to be the first in my family to go to college, I remember how meaningful it was to have my parents attend my graduation ceremony. So, I can only imagine how difficult this is for many of you whose family members cannot see you walk across the stage in your cap and gown to accept your diploma.
Indeed, this pandemic has brought about so many sudden changes. And it has compelled us to cope with uncertainty and isolation, which, as Aristotle told us—and as you may recall from the Core Curriculum—is totally contrary to our nature. As he explained in Politics: Book 1, those of us who cannot live in society, or are so self-sufficient as to have no need to, are either beasts or gods. I assume we have neither here today.
As a graduate of Columbia College and Columbia Law School, a member of the Columbia Athletics Hall of Fame, and a Trustee of Columbia University, I’m proud to welcome you to the wonderful, diverse, and growing community of Columbia alumni. I hope you’ll take advantage of being a part of that community, which provides mentorship, support, and care to all alumni, especially our newest graduates.
Attending Columbia truly changed my life, as I hope it has changed yours: This is where my eyes were opened to the world and the value of public service. The education I received at Columbia, starting with the Core Curriculum, made me who I am today: someone who values giving back to my community, cherishes the rule of law, and has chosen to work within the system to ensure that justice prevails. And, not surprisingly, the Core has largely informed my body of work as a judge.
Among the very valuable lessons we learned at Columbia is the value of service—particularly to vulnerable populations. This is perhaps more important today than ever before in light of the global crisis we are currently faced with. It has affected all of us, directly or indirectly, from the loss of a job to the loss of life.
On a personal note, I lost my 97-year-old father to the coronavirus a couple of weeks ago. He lived a great life and impacted many others. It was he who reinforced and made real through example the value of contribution I learned at Columbia. He showed me that my contentment is directly related to the path I follow to success and the lives that I impact. I dare say that it was his example, coupled with what I learned at Columbia, that allow me to say that we should look at this crisis not as a net negative, but as an opportunity to re-examine what’s important and focus on what gives us meaning.
This crisis tells me that our priorities should be different; that life is about more than professional goals. Our humanity calls on us to be good fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, neighbors and citizens. We must focus on things that are larger than ourselves. And we must recognize that what is truly important is not prestige or wealth, but our collective commitment to our families, to our communities, and to one another.
In my line of work, we talk a great deal about service and take pride in our noble legal profession. For many, however, the concept has become a mere platitude. That’s why I often encourage newly admitted attorneys to see themselves as having both an individual as well as a collective responsibility for the health of the legal system and society. Throughout my career, from public interest lawyer, to civil rights government official, to Presiding Justice of the preeminent intermediate appellate court in the country, I have always tied my individual success to my community’s collective success. It always worked for me and I simply thought this was part and parcel of my immigrant experience—to open doors and make sure they remained open for those who might follow. In the last few months, I have learned that this need is a lot more universal.
Therefore, my challenge to you is this: Continue to find ways in which to help others through your work. Because what you do for a living is important, but the impact you have on people’s lives is just as important, if not more so. I submit to you that accepting this challenge will not only benefit society, but it will also be the beginning of a more satisfying part of your life’s journey, where you will discover that there is no substitute for a balanced life, which includes service to others. You will discover that far more precious than your degree is the development of a self-knowledge that sheds light on what you value and what inspires you—a self-knowledge that will enable you to achieve authentic success, by which I mean success that is measured not by how many toys you accumulate, but by how much joy you derive from serving those who so desperately need your help.
Or, as Gandhi would say, “you will only find yourself when you lose yourself in the service of others.”
Congratulations, and best wishes as you continue on this journey.