Three decades is ample time for a legacy to develop. Consider the Cabans at CUNY Law. Osvaldo Caban got his J.D. in 1987, the second graduating class; his daughter, Celina, is on track to graduate in 2014. Both have strong feelings for their school.
“To me, it’s so much more than just a legal education. It was a big part of my life, even before I went here,” she said. “It’s like a second home.”
You could argue that it’s her third home; her dad took baby Celina to visit CUNY Law in Flushing when he was there. The school made such an impression on Osvaldo that he named his daughter after one of its professors, Celina Romany.
But, really, no pressure on Celina pursuing a J.D. and choosing CUNY Law. Although her father, a solo practitioner and criminal defense attorney, did point out that she—as a strong debater and great people person—could do well in law, Celina says she always had a choice.
She chose to take the LSAT and work as a paralegal for her father while she prepared for the test. Celina was intrigued by work with clients at Rikers Island; at the same time, she got a chance to observe her dad.
“I saw how thoughtful and creative he was at work,” she said, “but also saw the way he taught and how equally dedicated he was to being my father.”
Osvaldo represents indigent parolees who have had their parole revoked for some alleged violation.
“A lot of our clients have done some bad things, but they didn’t do all the bad things some police officers claim they are doing,” Osvaldo said. So he’ll search hard for that single document that can prove his client’s innocence and release him from jail.
“They call you day and night asking you to help them. You give these guys hope. The struggle they have is so traumatic,” he said.
Osvaldo knows about struggles. Born to Puerto Rican parents in Brownsville, Brooklyn, he grew up in the projects of Long Island City, Queens. His mother raised him after his parents divorced when he was 5; he was 11 the next time he saw his dad in Puerto Rico. Osvaldo began spending summers there and saw the beauty of the island and the culture he was missing. (As for Celina, she has visited Puerto Rico every year since she was 5 months old.)
In New York in the 1970s, what Osvaldo saw was political activism and groups like the Young Lords working to stabilize the South Bronx and East Harlem.
“It really touched me. I came from a totally disenfranchised community,” said Osvaldo. “I thought, ‘maybe I could do something like that.’” Getting into the new CUNY Law School got the ball rolling.
In its early days, Osvaldo remembers a no-frills law school housed in an elementary school. He felt the school’s move to its (now former) Flushing location was an instant improvement in space and facilities. These days, when visiting Celina in Long Island City, Osvaldo is truly impressed.
“Wow, what an upgrade! From early inception to now with this huge, beautiful building; it’s great to see the whole transition,” he said.
But it’s not building upgrades that prepare students for lawyering. It’s the faculty and staff, and the quality of the student body, as well as the mission. They remain constant to this day.
“The foundation of the Law School is built on a premise: You have to care for all people’s needs. That’s what really touched me and my heart to undertake that challenge,” he said.
The same thing touched Osvaldo’s daughter nearly 30 years later.
“When I came here, there was an overflow of warmth and a diversity of students. The professors are so passionate and dedicated. I feel comfortable and happy and so invested in this school,” said Celina.
She has enjoyed the day-to-day life of CUNY Law, the learning and the application. She has also completed a civil rights internship in Mississippi with Jaribu Hill (’95) and uses these skills in her current internship with LatinoJustice PRLDEF ; her first-year courses, including Legal Writing with Professor Andrea McArdle and Civil Procedure with now former Professor Jenny Rivera, laid down a lawyering foundation that helped her clerk for Magistrate Judge Ronald Ellis; and she has found moot court and the CUNY Law Review organizations not so much work as “exciting and fun.”
In addition, CUNY Law has given her access. The clerking job opened the door to meeting U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, “a dream come true” for Celina, who had written about her in law school admissions essays.
On the eve of the Law School’s 30th anniversary, both Cabans have deep admiration for the school and are grateful for their shared experience.
“CUNY Law is the number one public interest–focused school in the country,” said Celina, who dreams of making a bid for City Council one day. “I’m so proud to be a student here and to see such successful and progressive alumni.”
As for Osvaldo, he’s happy that CUNY Law has been there for him and his daughter, providing the education and the grounding for her to become a lawyer in 2014.
“I am thankful that CUNY Law has survived and persevered through all the struggles and turmoil New York City has gone through,” he said. “I am so proud my daughter and I are a part of it. CUNY Law School is a gift.”
– Paul Lin