Justice Cleo Powell ’82 Offers Grads Advice on Path to Personal Growth

Historic Commencement Takes Place at Rotunda, Scott Stadium and Online
Justice Cleo Powell and the Lawn procession

Justice Cleo E. Powell ’82 offered prerecorded remarks and law students participated in a combined graduation ceremony Sunday in Scott Stadium. Photo by UVA Communications

May 23, 2021

Being uncomfortable has its upsides, said Justice Cleo E. Powell of the Supreme Court of Virginia during her commencement address to the University of Virginia School of Law’s Class of 2021.

Powell, a 1982 alumna of the Law School and the first Black woman to serve on the court, said being uncomfortable is the way that lawyers, and people in general, grow and develop understanding.

In a unique commencement ceremony, law students joined graduate students from the Darden School of Business and undergraduates from the McIntire School of Commerce in Scott Stadium on Sunday following a procession down the Lawn. Because individual ceremonies weren’t held due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Powell delivered her remarks via a prerecorded video released the same day.

The prerecorded commencement video includes remarks by Dean Risa Goluboff, former Student Bar Association President Katharine Janes ’21 and Powell.

When encountering challenges, “It was in the times when I sought as much to understand as to be understood that I felt that I had the best handle on the situation,” Powell said. “Be willing to be made to feel uncomfortable and to make someone else feel comfortable.

“It sometimes feels uncomfortable to sit at the table when no one else looks like you. It sometimes feels uncomfortable to voice an opinion not shared by others at the table. It may feel uncomfortable to be the new associate in a room filled with partners. But I have found that it is in the uncomfortable spaces of our lives where we grow and learn, and where we afford others the opportunity to grow and learn.”

She said acknowledging people’s individuality and their needs shouldn’t be restricted to the professional setting.

“See the people with whom you come in contact daily, the person on the street, the grocery store clerk, the waitress, everyone,” Powell said. “See them as the individuals that they are — not as a monolithic, indivisible ‘they’ or ‘them.’”

As people continue to have needs related to the pandemic, she noted the opportunity for graduates to step outside themselves and connect.   

“The past year-and-a-half has been both disquietingly silent as we quarantined and simultaneously deafeningly loud as various groups sought to be heard,” she said. “Both in the quiet and in the cry, I encourage you to listen and to hear. Hear both what is being said and what is not being said. Engage in each encounter with all of your senses.”

In 2011, Powell was appointed to the state Supreme Court and Virginia, serving as its fifth female justice.

She previously served on the Court of Appeals of Virginia, starting in 2008. She was a judge on the Chesterfield/Colonial Heights Circuit Court, starting in 2000, and its General District Court, where she first became a judge, in 1993.

Powell also served as a senior assistant attorney general in the Equal Employment Opportunity and Personnel Division from 1986-89.

While she has often been called a “trailblazer,” she said that wasn’t her goal when she began her career — but added that anyone can be one.

“And while I accept that others may view me as such, I suggest that we all can be trailblazers because we all can leave a path for someone else to follow,” the justice said. “We can all through a million little ways make a path easier, more illuminated, less treacherous for others who will come after.”

Former Student Bar Association President Katharine Janes ’21 introduced Powell.

In addition to remarks from the justice, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, a 2005 UVA graduate, provided a prerecorded message as UVA’s main commencement speaker.

Dean Risa Goluboff officiated over the Law School portion of the group ceremony. Goluboff said it was “only fitting” that graduation be held in a stadium, where top athletes and musicians perform, because students weathered their already difficult legal training during a pandemic.

“A stadium is where star athletes who have honed their skill, stamina and grit for months at a time, for years at a time, come to be recognized and cheered on. It is where rock stars come to play,” the dean said. “You are all star athletes and rock stars who deserve — and no doubt are receiving — the adoration of the fans in this stadium, as well as those watching from home.” She released additional remarks following the Scott Stadium ceremony as well.

The Class of 2021 comprised 318 J.D. candidates, five LL.M. candidates and three S.J.D. candidates (including December 2020 graduates).


Sunday's Final Exercises was the last of seven graduation ceremonies UVA has held over the past two weekends. In a separate ceremony on May 16, some members of the UVA Law Class of 2020 and other students who graduated last year returned to Charlottesville for a ceremony that replaced canceled events. Melody Barnes, co-director of UVA’s Democracy Initiative and a senior fellow of the Karsh Center for Law and Democracy, delivered their commencement address. UVA Law’s Class of 2020 is invited to return to the Law School in the summer of 2022 for a reunion-style event, with details to be announced.

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Awards Presented at Graduation

Margaret G. Hyde Award

To the graduate whose scholarship, character, personality, activities in the affairs of the school, and promise of efficiency have warranted special recognition.

Katharine M. Janes

James C. Slaughter Honor Award

To an outstanding member of the graduating class.

Juliet Buesing Clark

Thomas Marshall Miller Prize

To an outstanding and deserving member or members of the graduating class.

Avery Clara Rasmussen

Z Society Shannon Award

To the graduate with the highest academic record after five semesters.

Avery Clara Rasmussen

Robert E. Goldsten Award for Distinction in the Classroom

To the graduate who has contributed the most to classroom education by his or her outstanding recitation and discussion.

Mihir Khetarpal

LL.M. Graduation Award

To an outstanding member or members of the graduating LL.M. class.

Chengqing Qian
Kexin Yuan

Roger and Madeleine Traynor Prize

To the graduate or graduates who have produced outstanding written work.

Mark Damian Duda II
Arjun Pushkar Ogale

Herbert Kramer/Herbert Bangel Community Service Award

To the graduate who has contributed the most to the community.

Nooreen Reza

Pro Bono Award

To the graduate who contributed the most to the Law School’s Pro Bono Program.

Kolleen Christina Gladden

Mortimer Caplin Public Service Award

To a graduate entering a career in the public service sector who demonstrates the qualities of leadership, integrity and service to others.

Sara Elaine Wendel

Edwin S. Cohen Tax Prize

To a graduate who has demonstrated superior scholarship in the tax area.

Michael B. Shelton

Earle K. Shawe Labor Relations Award

To the graduate who shows the greatest promise in the field of labor relations.

Eliza I. Schultz

John M. Olin Prize in Law and Economics

To a graduate or graduates who have produced outstanding written work in the field of law and economics.

Taorui Guan

Eppa Hunton IV Memorial Book Award

To a graduate who demonstrates unusual aptitude in courses in the field of litigation, and who shows a keen awareness and understanding of the lawyer’s ethical and professional responsibility.

Gia Scala Nyhuis

Virginia Trial Lawyers Trial Advocacy Award

To a graduate who shows particular promise in the field of trial advocacy.

Anna Catherine Cox

Virginia State Bar Family Law Book Award

To the graduate who has demonstrated the most promise and potential for the practice of family law.

Eliza I. Schultz

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.

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