Tommy Cerja IV wants every student to have a great time at the University of Virginia School of Law. As the newly elected president of the Student Bar Association, he’ll be able to put that ideal into action.

Cerja, who officially took office Tuesday, won his election on a platform of making the Law School more welcoming than ever.

“In my role as SBA president, I want to create an environment at this law school where everyone feels seen, everyone feels heard and everyone feels like they can contribute if they want to and they have someone supporting them — always,” the second-year student said in an interview the day he took office.

When Cerja was considering where to go to law school, he wanted a place that would capture the spirit of his historically Black undergraduate school, Norfolk State University.

“There was this mantra that we are better together,” he said, “so you’re not competing with your peers, but you’re collectivizing with your peers and really coming together so everyone can do as well as possible academically, personally, professionally. We’re trying to push the bar as high as possible for all of us.

“I see those parallels between the themes of community at an HBCU and the themes of community at UVA, but I just want to make sure that’s as all-encompassing as possible,” he added.

Cerja, who hails from Virginia Beach, began to think about becoming a lawyer while participating in a legal studies academy at First Colonial High School. As an undergraduate, he majored in interdisciplinary studies through the Nusbaum Honors College, while concentrating in political science and psychology.

“And it was there where I started to write papers and conduct research for professors and started to notice gaps in equity, division of resources,” he said. “That’s when I realized that certain communities just need more advocates and better advocacy. I felt that law school was the best place to facilitate those skills.”

Cerja said coming to UVA was a bit of a culture shock at first.

“I’ve never been to a school this big with this many resources and obviously the demographics were way different than I was used to,” he said.

He tried new activities and hobbies, such as playing in the 1L softball all-star game, and his best friends Keith Stone ’24 and Drew Flanagan ’24 convinced him to play for Barristers United, the student soccer team.

“Even though I was just learning and was far behind all the other kids [playing soccer], I never once felt like I didn’t belong,” he said. “And that’s just one example of how UVA really makes you feel like you can really do anything, and you can be empowered to try new things and learn new things.”

Soccer playersCerja joined Barristers United, the student soccer team, as a first-year student. Courtesy photo

He has also felt inspired by his classes, citing Contracts with Professor Thomas Nachbar, Evidence with Professor Gregory Mitchell, Environmental Law with Professor Michael Livermore and Constitutional Law with Professor Julia Mahoney.

“I think [Mahoney’s] class really shaped my broad approach to law school classes and law school material and how I engage in certain subjects,” he said.

His experiences in and outside of the classroom led him to want to make sure every other student enjoyed law school just as much.

“That’s what really drove me to run is so everyone can have that feeling that these were a great three years and you made lifelong friends and had unique experiences, learned new things and became interested in things you would’ve never expected.”

Giving back to the community isn’t a new habit for Cerja. Since 2020, he has been an advisory board member for Team Yellow Charity, an effort launched by music superstar and Virginia Beach native Pharrell Williams that aims to reduce educational inequities in underserved communities. Cerja connected to the effort through an internship for a commercial real estate firm that helped facilitate Williams’ “Something in the Water” music festival, which is returning to Virginia Beach this year.

The foundation opened its first school in 2021 for elementary students in Norfolk.

“It’s been a really rewarding opportunity to see someone like Pharrell be able to give back to his hometown and what can happen when you just assemble a team of people together who really want to create change,” he said. “It’s really changed the lives of young people in that community.”

At UVA Law, Cerja has also served on the editorial board for the Virginia Environmental Law Journal, as a member of the student organization Advocates for Disability Rights, and as social action chair for the Black Law Students Association. Through BLSA, he gained communications and leadership experience by responding to the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Whole Health Organization decision and drafting a statement of healing after three UVA students were killed in a shooting in November.

“It’s an act of school violence that was really close to home, despite it being on Main Grounds,” he said.

This summer, Cerja will deploy his advocacy skills while working at two law firms in New York — Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, where he also served as a 1L Diversity Fellow last summer, and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett.

Living in the city “was such a great experience, so rewarding and just an epicenter of different communities, culture, experiences, and it was so rewarding just to soak all that in. So I definitely knew I wanted to go right back.”

When he returns to Charlottesville in the fall, a full slate of work as SBA president will greet him. He hopes to create a competition among sections, similar to the business school’s Darden Cup, and to sponsor events where affinity groups highlight their cultures — all while improving upon the existing annual SBA events.

“I really want the student body to know that we’re going to make sure they can have a great time in law school, and they can be celebrated for all their achievements,” he said.

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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