Though the 2021-2022 academic year officially comes to a close in less than two weeks, Fordham Law’s Asian Pacific American Law Students Association (APALSA) ensured that its members, as well as the broader Fordham community, marked one last celebration in May—Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. We spoke with Melissa Dzenis-Garcia ’23, Lauren Kim ’23, and Sharon Yang ’23—president and co-vice presidents, respectively, of APALSA—about the importance of representation and ongoing collaborations as well as how they celebrated AAPI Heritage Month ahead of schedule.
Looking back at the past year, what have you found to be the benefits of serving on APALSA’s e-board?
MDG: APALSA meant so much to me when I was a 1L. As President, I was motivated by the desire to give back to an organization that opened doors for me career-wise, provided deep friendships, and helped me find myself in the law school space—which can be hard for someone who is AAPI, Black, brown, and/or first generation. I wanted to be part of a dynamic board and promote even more AAPI visibility once we made the transition back to campus. In terms of benefits, I’ve learned a lot more about myself and how I understand, or perhaps still don’t understand, Asian American identity—how rich, complex, and textured that is, and how that can be contextualized for us, as law students, in a challenging, yet beautiful way. And that we can create a community around that complexity. I’ve also learned more about where the Asian American legal community currently is and how there is still so much to do and overcome. For me, personally, it’s been wonderful to mentor 1Ls, prepare them for their job interviews, and help them network. We—as an organization, as a board, and as human beings—were also there to comfort them emotionally in light of AAPI violence over the last year.
I would also add that I’ve learned a lot about the landscape of the Law School—how student organizations, faculty, and the administration interact; how difficult the work of promoting diversity and inclusion can be; and how much more we can do to make the Law School a welcoming and supportive space for those who are so chronically underrepresented in this profession, namely, first-generation students, the LGBTQ+ community, women, and students of color.
LK: Similar to what Melissa was saying, being on the board right now has been great. APALSA also helped me immensely during my 1L year, so I wanted to pay that forward and give back. It’s been very fulfilling to be a point person and answer people’s questions—whether it’s talking to 1Ls about triggering moments and experiences in their criminal law classes or helping them figure out how to navigate on-campus interviews (OCI) and unique law school relationships that you don’t typically find outside this environment. One of the things I wanted to accomplish this year [as co-vice president]was to facilitate more events and opportunities for our student body and reach out to more people who may not have paid attention to APALSA otherwise.
SY: As an international first-generation student, I wanted to find peers who come from a similar background as me and cultivate a sense of community, which I found within APALSA last year. Being a part of the board this year and seeing our 1L representatives and 1L students connecting made me feel very grateful to be part of this bigger process. My drive [as co-vice president]was to continue building that tight knit, almost family-like environment and pipeline amongst our student members. One of the highlights as co-vice president was holding our spring dinner with alumni [which saw record breaking sponsorship]on April 20 after our fall dinner was canceled at the last minute due to COVID-19. It was one of the most enjoyable aspects of my experience on the board.
As you mentioned, health and safety guidance was in flux throughout the year, affecting some of your planned programming. How did APALSA accomplish the goals it set out back in September?
MDG: The return to campus was really challenging for a variety of reasons, but we did shift as things changed. I think we executed on a lot of our core goals for the year—particularly with respect to increasing Asian American visibility on campus and promoting awareness around anti-AAPI hate initiatives. Together with the wonderful team at the Feerick Center for Social Justice, we were able to have one of the top experts in anti-AAPI violence advocacy in the country speak with our members. We continued to provide really robust OCI guidance and academic support to our members, but also opened up the dialogue around career paths outside of big law by holding events with local government and academics. For example, we held a meet and greet and discussion [about progressive prosecution, mentorship, and summer internship opportunities]with AAPI attorneys from both the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. We also had our first ever fireside chat with Visiting Professor of Law Sanjukta Paul on Sept. 24, during which time she discussed her recent work on antitrust and workers rights in the platform economy—again, illuminating the broader scope of what you can do with a law degree outside of big law. We kicked off the spring semester with a Lunar New Year celebration on Feb. 7—the first time we had lion dancers come and perform—and held an in-person trial reenactment of the 1982 Vincent Chin case on April 19.
Another major goal we had was to collaborate more with Fordham University students and add visibility to their efforts in advocating for a concentration, or even a minor, in Asian American Studies at the undergraduate level. We held a co-sponsored screening of a documentary about Vincent Chin at the Law School on April 29 and invited all Fordham community members to attend. I think the fact that we were able to collaborate with University students this year is the first of many future steps.
LK: It’s also been fulfilling to work with Fordham Law’s administration and different centers like the Feerick Center for Social Justice. Developing and strengthening those partnerships are something that we hope will continue in the years to come with future APALSA boards, because it’s been so helpful for our community in all of the aspects of visibility like Melissa mentioned.
Classes wrapped up last week, finals are underway, and then it’s graduation. Why was it important for you to ensure that APALSA would celebrate AAPI Heritage Month during this busy time of year for students?
SY: It was very important to us to be able to offer all these events before finals rolled in, so that our members had opportunities to do other things besides studying—for example, providing them opportunities to talk to alumni as well as to continue to be actively involved in our community through the trial reenactment and spring dinner. Because school restrictions continued to ease [based on the latest health and safety guidance], it was great to have more of those in-person opportunities. That feeling was very refreshing.
MDG: April and May [overall]are difficult months for law students. It’s so easy for us to become individualistic and just focus on grades and summertime plans. Yet, our board was juggling responsibilities and working around the clock to get things done so that we could celebrate with our community. It truly is a testament to how special and awesome they are. Providing that space for our members and continuing to put on these events at the end of the year highlights, I think, how proud and committed we are to both ourselves and our community.
What does AAPI Heritage Month mean to you, especially as law students?
LK: Asians make up a small percentage of the legal industry and there is a lack of representation in the industry. [“Two percent of all lawyers are Asian, up only 0.4% from 10 years ago, while almost 6% of the U.S. population is Asian,” according to the American Bar Association’s 2020 Profile of the Legal Profession.] So, seeing more representation and having more visibility is important to us, especially for those who are first-generation students and aspire to be part of this field. I think putting greater emphasis on the community-building aspects of what we do and have here in APALSA has been very helpful—particularly, as Melissa said, when this is a hectic and chaotic time of the year for law students.