2017 Ms. JD Honors Awardees Spotlight Series: 5 Q&A with Liani Balasuriya

Liani Balasuriya

2017 Ms. JD Student of Inspiration Award

The following questions were formulated based on Liani's profile.

1. What made you want to be involved in the Northwestern's Women's Leadership Coalition?

I’ve been interested in women’s leadership issues since high school. I was the only woman on the executive board of my high school newspaper, and I believe being a woman affected how my peers perceived my leadership. I was also surprised by how few women ran for Student Council President. After graduating high school, I went to college in D.C. and volunteered at Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign headquarters in Northern Virginia. Her run – and her fortitude in the face of gendered criticism – inspired me, in part because it resonated with some of my leadership experiences in high school. After college, I worked for a female governor, who is also a lawyer. She was a model for me, as I watched her navigate the demands of a complex job with conviction and grace. Through these experiences, I’ve seen women accomplish incredible things in positions of influence, no matter the odds. I wanted to continue to advance the cause of women’s leadership when I started law school, so I signed up to join Northwestern Women’s Leadership Coalition right away at student org night! 

2 & 3. What was your biggest challenge in your capacity as the President of the Coalition? How did you overcome it?

Organizing our Male Allies event presented unexpected challenges. We tested messaging within a planning committee of male allies. However, when that messaging went to the larger community, some students expressed frustration with the marketing. It was difficult to swallow my pride and take ownership for the frustration because the marketing ideas had been proposed and vetted by the larger planning committee – and the committee was excited about them! However, the success of our inaugural male ally event was important to me. After obtaining feedback from different parties, I made a decision to change the marketing strategy. This decision alleviated the tension the original marketing had created. At the end of the day, we had a great event with over 90 students, mostly males!

4. You currently serve as a Student Officer of the Diversity Education & Outreach Office. Why was it important to you to be part of that Office? 

Being a Student Officer of the Diversity Education & Outreach Office is one way I try to pay it forward. My parents immigrated to the United States. They struggled to assimilate, culturally and socio-economically, with little guidance. But they persisted. As a first-generation American, I too have felt like an outsider trying to fit in. However, unlike my parents, I’ve always had access to mentors. As a 1L at Northwestern, I had 3L and 2L friends who gave me invaluable advice and made me feel welcomed and part of the community, as a person and as a woman of color. As a Student Officer, I can similarly share my wealth of experience as a 3L and be a resource of advice and comfort to 1Ls and 2Ls as they assimilate to law school life. 

5. What advice would you give to any law student wanting to be involved in students’ organization that target specific minority groups?

First, I would encourage any law student to join a group that she feels passionate about. Joining a group that reflects a specific minority identity provides an important support system for one’s intellectual, mental, and emotional health and well-being. This is particularly important during times when minorities feel targeted and unwelcomed, like now. However, one benefit of law school is that you are forced to take classes with everyone. Make sure to develop relationships with students in other groups and listen to the ones you disagree with. Recognize commonalities, like the shared moments you all have when struggling to understand “consideration.” These human moments are key to coalition building outside the classroom. Third, do the work! Sometimes advocacy work is not fun or glamorous. It can be tedious and tiring – like sending emails, coordinating logistics, working with difficult people, and sending follow up after follow up after follow up. Commit to these smaller tasks with all your heart and complete them with pride and joy because it’s those baby steps that lead to something larger than yourself. Finally, my last piece of advice, especially for 1Ls, is don’t forget to study. It can be difficult to study when you feel personally attacked by those around you. However, it’s more important, now than ever, that you become the legal advocate you seek to be and that means getting that law degree! There are articles (like this one with tips) on how to navigate law school while dealing with a chaotic world outside.

Click here to get information about the 2017 Ms. JD Conference!  

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