2018 LL.M. Class Speaker (Fuad Gonzalo Chacón Tapias ) Speech



Hola, Columbia. My name is Fuad. It means “heart” in a language that I cannot speak. Twenty-six years ago, my father called me by this name. When I was a kid I did not understand why I couldn’t have a normal Latino name like Juan, Jorge or Carlos–you know, something I wouldn’t have to spell every time I met someone new, but now I understand. He named me Fuad as a reminder that you have to put heart in everything you do.



“I come from a small city called Bucaramanga, hidden among the mountains of Colombia and surrounded by a colossal canyon that protected it from the guerrilla movements and drug lords that tried to take the country in the 80’s. There, children grow up with a dream: study to become engineers and work in the state oil company. But that was not my dream. I wanted to be a lawyer”. These were the first sentences of the personal statement that I sent to Columbia in December 2016. I did not know it then, but that application was the origin of the most exciting adventure of my life, in which I have had the opportunity to meet all of you incredible LL.M.s, the most amazing people I have ever known.


Here in New York, far from our ordinary lives, is where many of us have really began to value our homes, our food, our people, and in my case, the anthem of my state in Colombia.  My state’s anthem has a very powerful chorus: “Always forward, not a step back”. I grew up repeating it in school, singing it in stadiums, listening to it on the radio. A mantra that slowly became a part of me: “Always forward, not a step back”.  Then, one day I realized it was the secret to everything: never forget those in the past who believed in you before you believed in yourself, yet always keep walking, moving forward ready to overcome new challenges. This very ability to overcome challenges has brought us to this afternoon.




My parents are here. This is their first visit to the United States. Just like many of your parents, they do not speak perfect English, and yet their hearts are beating at that pace somewhere between fear and excitement. And even without understanding the language, they are there smiling. Why? Because happiness and joy are universal languages that need no translation. Because the love of our families is an unstoppable force that crosses borders and travels with us without visas, regardless of walls, time, or other obstacles.


At the end of the day, many of us may have to confess that the hope of seeing them here today full of pride, smiling in this moment, was the spark and driving force that motivated us to keep working, even during our darkest hours. “Always forward, not a step back”. This is our way to say, “Thank you”. For all the parents and family members that are here today celebrating, and for those far away, “Thank you. We made it”.



Four years ago, after finishing my law degree in Bogotá, I came to New York as a tourist looking for adventure. I was standing here, watching the sun fading away behind the trees, and in that exact moment I fell in love with the sunsets of Columbia — University. “You will come back soon, Fuad, this is your home,” I promised to myself. And here I am today, celebrating surrounded by hundreds of new sisters and brothers that will forever be family.


We’ve all experienced the application process for this program, the stress of collecting all the required documents on time, the excitement of clicking the “submit” button, and the anxiety of the long wait—feeling like a castaway that’s thrown a bottle to the sea patiently waiting for someone to answer his call. And then, when you least expect it, the most wonderful e-mail arrives, the e-mail that changes your life: your admission to Columbia University— like the letter from Hogwarts that tells you that you are a wizard, Harry. After that, nothing is the same because your heart is full of joy and there’s only one thing you can think about: New York.


During my flight to New York, the airport security inspected my luggage three times. After opening the 20 novels by García Márquez, Faulkner, Hemingway and Kafka that were in it, they concluded that the books were actually harmless and not highly sophisticated devices to introduce illegal substances to the country. That was very disappointing for them… Why did this happen? Because Colombia, because Narcos, because “Plata o Plomo”.  Because we all carry on our shoulders stereotypes that we do not want and did not help to build.


Each one of us knows the sacrifices that we had to make and the odds we had to defy to be here, to arrive at this party today… We all had those lonely nights, reading cases and studying the complex science of law in a language—for many of us—not our own. Where all our insecurities would knock on the door: “Was coming here the right decision?”, “Is my English good enough?”, “Am I even a good lawyer?”, and “If I do not find a job, how am I going to pay for all this?”. But then, you remember “Always forward, not a step back”, and you arrive here at the final destination, understanding that it was all worth it.



Being a lawyer is not easy. People think that you are a liar, a mercenary that’s sold their soul for money, that you work with the bad guys. And although in a couple of cases that might be true, our pending assignment as Columbia alumni is to go out and help clean the name and restore the prestige of our profession. The world needs more lawyers with passion, willingness to serve, commitment and ethics. And the world need them now, because we live in an era that is scary. An era where being a certain gender, ethnicity, race, or sexuality can have scary, unwarrented consequences. We live in a world where bullets sound louder than discourse, where dreams are blocked by walls, where love is sometimes forbidden, and where hate is promoted as a government policy. But do not worry, mis amigos, because the world has us. The challenge is huge, but our dreams are huge too, and only love can guide us through the thick darkness of hate. Remember, “Always forward, not a step back”. Life is short, let’s make it count. Make some noise, Columbia!