Meet Dehlia Umunna, the First Nigerian to be Appointed Professor at Harvard Law School

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Dehlia Umunna made history as Harvard’s first Nigerian Law professor in 2015, according to Harvard Law Today. Umunna serves as deputy director and clinical instructor at Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Institute (CJI).

Umunna’s duties as a Harvard Law Professor consists of governing third-year law students as they represent adult and juvenile clients in criminal and juvenile proceedings before the Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court and Appeals court.

From her unparalleled record in criminal defence trials to her adroit leadership and sublime tutelage, Dehlia Umunna has been an inspiration to all. She made history by changing the public perception of Ivy league Professors and addressing the issue of diversity in academia by being appointed as Harvard law school’s first Nigerian Professor.

Dehlia has received Harvard Law School’s Dean’s Award for Excellence, in acknowledgment of her outstanding service to the HLS community.

She is a member of the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, and Maryland Bar Associations. Dehlia holds a B.A. in Communications from California State University. She has a Masters in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and a JD from George Washington University Law School, where she was awarded the J.B. Shapiro Prize for Public Interest ($10,000).

This isn’t just a statement of achievements. It is also a call for you to find your inner Dehlia! You can do so much more, and excel in a manner that will leave your footprints on the sands of time!

 

“I relish this extraordinary opportunity to continue work that I am truly passionate about, and I am grateful for the deep interest and commitment of the school to issues of criminal justice, mass incarceration, indigent defense, and social justice,” Umunna said when first taking on the position.

On May 12, Harvard Law School Clinical Professor Dehlia Umunna became the first to deliver a Last Lecture in the season of COVID-19 lockdown. As she admitted in her talk, it wasn’t quite the occasion she’d imagined when she received the invitation in early February.

“It was one of the greatest honors of my life,” she told a Zoom audience of more than 100 graduating students. “I imagined that I would be exhorting you from the historic Ames Courtroom. I would walk into the room with a fresh haircut and manicured nails, and impart wisdom to a roomful of students. But alas, here we are. I’m in my dining room alone; you’re somewhere in the universe, maybe in your PJ’s. And you’re probably wondering how we got here.”

Though the setting had changed, she imparted wisdom nonetheless. Quoting a wide range of thinkers from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Willie Nelson, she confronted the despair her students might be feeling, and offered reason for hope.

“If you’re like me, you are all Zoomed out,” she said. “Your misery index is likely at its highest. The new normal feels cruel; it feels complex and complicated. So why even bother?” The answer, she said, was found in moments she’d spent with the graduating class, sharing career breakthroughs as well as personal setbacks: “If I’ve learned anything in life it’s that every traumatic event is an opportunity to reset for greatness. This too shall pass, and I promise you that it will be OK. How do I know that? Because I know you, and you are an extraordinary class—incredibly smart, innovative and talented.”

Sharing some of her own personal journey, she noted that she’d turned 47 the previous day—and that she still has a few unmet goals, including learning to swim and to ride a bike. She recounted her birth in London, her immigration to the United States 28 years ago, and surviving domestic abuse.

“I’ve had the privilege of representing clients through cases that attracted great media attention, and I’ve been buffeted by trials that would floor most people. I’ve known poverty and lack; I know what it means to hurt deeply and to have your values questioned. I also know what it means to be happy and joyful. And I know what it is to trust my lord and savior Jesus Christ. I have acquired some wisdom—I shall tell you.”

Say and do the most important things now instead of putting them off.

She offered five pieces of advice to the graduating class. The first was to maintain an “intense sense of gratitude,” admittedly a challenge right now. “If you’re not sure what to be grateful for in this season, what if you had no home to shelter in, or were too sick to wear a mask?” The second lesson—to say and do the most important things now instead of putting them off—led Umunna to recall the loss of a young client in a Roxbury shooting soon after winning a case for him. Quoting Emerson, she noted: “You can’t do a kindness too soon, because you never know how soon it will be too late.”

 

Her third lesson, to strive for meaningful work, also brought some personal history—in this case seeing her brother incarcerated as a teenager. “It was difficult to find someone who cared about this 17-year-old black boy, and at that moment I made my mind up to be the kind of lawyer I wished he’d had.”

Finally, she urged the graduates to be their authentic selves whenever possible, and to try learning something new every day—whether that meant a major career move or learning to be a pet parent during quarantine. Toasting the class with ginger limeade she said, “Class of 2020, I thank you for being you.”

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