The following is the second in a three-part series focusing on outstanding members of the Class of 2016. (More)

When Sijia Xiang, who will soon graduate from the University of Virginia School of Law as a member of the class of 2016, joined her high school debate team in Queens, New York, her motivations were different than those of most of her classmates. Having immigrated to the U.S. from China's Hunan Province when she was 14, Xiang's main goal was to improve her spoken English.

"It was really hard to speak to people at first, and when you're in Queens, you can get away with not speaking English," Xiang said. "When I came here, my parents said there are two paths you can choose — you can survive in the immigrant community, but is that really what you want, since we gave you this awesome chance to come to the U.S.?

"They sort of guilted me into it," she said. "'Don't be scared, you have this chance, go for it! Go for the full assimilation.' So I did it, and I really enjoyed it."

Having spent her high school and undergraduate years (the latter at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York system) in New York City, Xiang was eager to see another part of the country. When she arrived at UVA, she was grateful for the ideological diversity of her classmates.

"One of the most important things I learned here was to be willing to talk to people who surprise you," she said. "Given the education I had and the circles I ran in, I would have thought that a libertarian would disagree with me on every issue. But three of my friends here consider themselves libertarians. Even if you disagree about some essential issues, that doesn't mean you can't be friends. It doesn't mean they are unreasonable. Now I can see the justifications, and I influence their thoughts sometimes, and maybe they influence mine."

Xiang will be joining the New York firm Davis Polk & Wardwell after she graduates on May 22, focusing on corporate law. As an associate over the summer, she put her fluent Mandarin skills to good use, working for a month in the firm's Beijing office.

"I got to see a bit of how an American law firm works in China," she said. "It's a very different dynamic. It's a part of China I didn't get to experience when I lived there, since I didn't live in a big city like Beijing."

She's found a partner mentor at Davis Polk, who, as an Asian woman herself, has helped give her the self-assurance to pursue what is sure to be a demanding path.

At UVA, Xiang said, she has cherished the accessibility of her professors. She has enjoyed the intellectual challenge of classes that focused on aspects of legal theory, such as religious liberty and freedom of speech, noting in particular a class she's currently taking on First Amendment law with Leslie Kendrick.

Coming from an immigrant family, Xiang said, building a future with strong financial stability was very important. But she wasn't sure what profession she was going to pursue. As an undergraduate, she interned for the New York Legal Assistance Group, researching issues related to immigration and translating for Mandarin-speaking clients. She found that for some clients, her most important role was helping them reach a level of basic trust with the U.S. legal system.

"Some of the immigrants we saw were dealing with political persecution," she said. "So now they're in a case, and we say, come to the DA's office, you're the victim, you need to testify. But they still find the idea of trusting the police difficult. They wonder, can we trust the government? Working on that was interesting, and in a little way I feel like I was helping. People don't hand you a handbook when you come to this country saying this is how this works."

Though Xiang found it difficult to take on the emotions generated by some of the cases, particularly in circumstances such as those involving domestic violence, she found the work rewarding, and is open to pursuing opportunities to work on immigration law in some capacity later on in her career. The experience helped pave the way to her future law school pursuits, where she has particularly enjoyed classes such as tax and corporate law.

Outside of classes, Xiang has been president of the Asian Pacific Law Student Association, a member of Women of Color and on the editorial board of the Virginia Law & Business Review, and has participated in the Public Interest Law Association's Alternative Spring Break.

Besides her classes and activities, she enjoys reading plays, an interest she developed, she believes, as an English as a second language reader, since there was less text on the page to parse than in novels. She is passionate about Eugene O'Neill, Henrik Ibsen and, of course, Shakespeare.

"It was brought to another level when I saw a Shakespeare play being performed," she said. "I saw Kevin Spacey do 'Richard III' at BAM [in New York] and thought, it's a completely different play than how I read it."

She said she's looking forward to returning to New York City for work, and plans to live in Brooklyn, where it's an easy commute to visit her mother and father, who now live on Long Island. Though law school has had its challenges — especially in the first year — Xiang said she has made her way to the end through perseverance and the support of her friends and fellow law students.

"There's no secret to law school," she said. "It's hard, but it's the kind of hard that if you work for it, you'll get it." 

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.