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June 2, 2020

Farewell, UChicago

Law student columnist reflects on activism and identity.

This is my last article to my UChicago community (at least for now). I wasn’t supposed to land in UChicago. At least, the numbers say so. America’s success is reserved for the select few (you can imagine how they look and how many figures are in their investment funds)—others are merely spectators and facilitators of the country’s success, but not beneficiaries thereof. Somehow, I trudged through into at least one circle of America’s elites: UChicago. And now, I’m preparing to receive my diploma from it.

I, too, was allowed to be a player in this game we call “America’s ladder of success–opoly”. You can call me an American winner, I suppose. But there’s a difference between my wins and those of my classmates. I did not have a social network of friends, family, and acquaintances prepared to connect me into and out of Chicago, nor did I (or my people) have a chunky piggy bank to help survive it, nor did I have the privileges of instant, assumed respect because of how “John Doe” or “Sarah Doe” I looked. But I did benefit from the dedicated labor of many of my people. Because of their support, my victories extend beyond me. I did not get here on my own. My victories are not my victories alone. My law school experience was a collective one, and as I leave the University of Chicago Law School behind, I bid farewell to the many wins that were won off the court. This article is a tribute to them, and to the people that enabled me to create them. This article is also a reminder to lowerclassmen to leave the classrooms for the match point.

To MLSA: Someone once told me they thought there were 20 Muslim law students at the Law School because we were notably loud and active. While we were a mighty group, we were actually a small one. I entered law school with only a handful (literally, count us on one hand) of fellow Muslim classmates. And every year, fewer and fewer Muslims were admitted. Despite our numbers, we sent ripples throughout the Law School community. Every year, we hosted a community iftar. We brought speakers to speak about important issues. And this year, our MLSA co-hosted the second annual National Muslim Law Students Conference, bringing together Muslim students, professors, and attorneys from across the nation. You know how they say there is power in numbers? We debunked it. There is power in passion. Students, never underestimate your power. Never let anyone tell you that you are voiceless. Act with the bravado of a peer whose accolades have been fertilized and nurtured by his trust fund. You just need one person to tell you an idea is a good idea, and that one person can be you.

To my SWANA: When I commenced law school, SWANA, or Southwest Asian and North Afrikan Law Students Association, didn’t exist. SWANA fosters community for students who have an interest in Southwest Asian and Afrikan cultures, politics, and legal institutions. Known as the Middle Eastern organization at other schools, SWANA rejects discourse and rhetoric that depend on an exclusively orientalist or national security framework. I vividly remember SWANA’s inception: I was sitting in Mansueto with the future cofounder of SWANA. Classmates were knee-deep studying for finals while we were filling out an application on behalf of SWANA to be recognized as an organization. As 1Ls, every advice we received was to stay the middle course: Focus on exams, and ignore everything and everyone until we finish our first year of classes. Yet, it was important to us, an issue of principle, that this community was recognized. Benighted and bigoted, elite institutions of higher education, like UChicago, have deeply entrenched modes of privileging the privileged, like legacy admissions and employment opportunities. Recognition begets accountability, and there was a lot of harm for which the school should be held accountable, like student representation and Islamophobic and orientalist rhetoric from faculty. Recognition also connects us to resources that are afforded to other students, like affinity networking receptions and funds for conferences. Students, if there’s a void, fill it, and at no cost settle for blending in. Stand out, and use the power of attention to supplant the status quo.

To Pal-Trek: My biggest achievement of law school was taking 30 classmates to the Occupied West Bank (and this year, sans COVID-19, we would have been nearly 100). To discuss Palestine and the suffering of Palestinians is to invite reprisal, wherever you are (see anti–BDS laws, fired pro-Palestinian professors, and websites demonizing pro-Palestinian students). UChicago is no different as it has a history of deftly condoning rhetoric and actions that harass and intimidate students who speak out in support of Palestine. Pal-Trek was created against the mold of civility. Along with a Palestinian at the Law School, we organized and led a student organized trip to the West Bank. Several other universities from around the country joined us in this trek. I found joy in reading student messages after the trip. One student immediately texted me after the trip and said, “I didn’t really know what the conflict was about. Now that I do, I promise to share the lessons I gained.” Several others called it “life-changing” and “unforgettable.” Most of the students had little to no knowledge of the conflict. Now, I am confident they have the fortitude and knowledge to advocate and fight for the liberation and justice for Palestinians no matter where their careers and conversations take them. Students, don’t let fear inhibit you from pursuing justice. Offend the sensibilities of your peers. Hell, offend the sensibility of your professors, too. Address the conformity of educators and administrators. Uplift and amplify the voices of the dispossessed. Working toward true justice is a nebulous path—it’s disruptive and often you’ll find yourself in the minority. But remember, the status quo doesn’t receive majority popular support when it hasn't made it to status quo. There is no liberation without labor, just as there is no real education without moral honesty.

There’s a theme to my law school victories—they had little to do with the classroom. One last victory I can put under my UChicago journey is writing, although it’s more personal in nature. When I first started law school, several upperclassmen both at UChicago and beyond told me that the law school journey is like a conveyor belt: You stay on and do the basic requirements until you have to get off. Although I’m sure doing so would have been easier, doing so, to me, would indicate a capitulation to the founders of a field that didn’t even envision me as a student learning their centuries-old curriculum. Writing, both here in The Maroon and my own journaling, has been my own personal revolution. When overwhelmed by classroom mendacity, I turned to writing to parallel my education. I’ve done my research, questioned my assumptions, and memorialized events that would have otherwise been forgotten. Often, my thoughts reach no one (or very few), but they have reached me and helped me grow when I have been in my lowest lows. It is so easy to be hard on yourself, especially here at UChicago. Do not ever forget: You alone have volumes to teach yourself. Your ideas and experiences are of inherent value, and no professor, curriculum, or pedagogy can replace you. I hope all students find or develop their own outlets where they can learn and grow against this institution that is so good at invalidating and taking away from individuality.

This is my last Maroon piece (God-willing, please let me graduate). It’s been a pleasure sharing myself with you, and I pray wherever life takes you next, you do it in happiness, health, and humility.

Leena El-Sadek is a student at UChicago Law School. 

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