Crystal S. Yang ’13, the 2023 recipient of Harvard Law School’s Albert M. Sacks-Paul A. Freund Award for Teaching Excellence, brought a personal message to graduating students when she accepted her award on Class Day: “I hope that you will embrace and nurture your humanity, choosing kindness at every moment, in the law and in life.”
Yang recalled her history with the graduating class, many of whom entered Harvard Law School at the start of the pandemic. “We had the most unconventional of introductions, a first year of law school conducted entirely on Zoom,“ she said. Meeting in person a year later on campus, she said, was “a strange reunion of sorts.”
“As we walked the halls of HLS, we squinted our eyes at the sight of a familiar-looking, albeit still masked face, wondering ‘Hey, is that really you? You’re taller than I thought!’” she said. “Today, I am overjoyed to have this opportunity to celebrate, in person, with you and your loved ones, your sterling accomplishments.”
Yang urged the graduates to find their North Star, a guiding light that would sustain them through life and the law. Her own star, she said, reflects her family’s experience of entering this country as immigrants three decades ago. “Despite having no support network in this country, and despite facing immense language and cultural barriers, my parents gave me the greatest gift: the chance to grow up in a country premised on the ideal of opportunity and justice for all. I would not be here with you today, but for my parent’s love, courage, and sacrifice. … My pursuits in the legal profession — as practitioner, scholar, and most of all, teacher — are in service of this goal.”
She also encouraged the graduates to approach their new careers with kindness and tolerance. “Do not shield or hide the things that make you different, for these qualities will be your biggest strength in serving our society. Trust in what I hope we have shown you here at HLS — that we are all made better by learning from those with different experiences and perspectives, and that our country is made better when we can engage in respectful and open dialogue and when we can find common ground.”
She advised them to be gracious and honest with their clients — and also with those opposing their clients. “Do not view those on the opposing side as villains to be vanquished. Rather, listen — I mean really listen — and help others to find common ground and to understand our shared humanity.”
Finally, she said graduates should be sure to save some kindness for themselves. “Remember that you are so much more than the credentials on your resume. We are not invincible, so do not ignore your physical and mental well-being. Take time off to recover when you inevitably experience disappointment, pain, and loss. And finally, hold onto your unique interests and talents that have nothing to do with your legal education.” She noted that the graduating class includes artists, athletes, opera singers, and even an alpaca farmer. “Continue to enjoy these personal pursuits because they have made you happy in the past and they will continue to do so in the future.”
An economist and attorney, Yang is the Bennett Boskey Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, where she co-directs the Crime Working Group. Her teaching and research interests center around empirical law and economics, and her current research includes empirical projects on racial bias in the criminal justice system, human oversight of algorithms, the spillover effects of deportation fear, and delivery of health care in correctional facilities.
Yang, who earned a J.D. and Ph.D. in economics from Harvard in 2013, joined the Harvard Law faculty as an assistant professor in 2014 and was named a professor in 2019. From 2014 to 2015, she was a special assistant United States attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts, where she handled trial-level criminal investigations and briefed and argued multiple cases before the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.
“I could go on about her vast portfolio of professional accolades, but none of that would do justice as to why this individual was selected here today,” said Class Marshal Ryan Powers in introducing Yang. “A good teacher can make the difference between success and failure. A great teacher can change lives. An exceptional teacher can be transformative. This year’s pick is a force of nature, purely because of who she is. She is warm, she’s kind, she is always ready to lend guidance and advice to students in need. And she has helped mentor and uplift countless students from every corner of this community. She has made teaching more than a job. And she represents the very best of what this university has to offer.”
To close her remarks, Yang paid tribute to Class Day’s featured speaker, the actress Michelle Yeoh, and her film “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Yang invoked the journey taken by Yeoh’s Chinese-American immigrant character Evelyn, and the lessons to be taken from her experiences. “She has learned that all of us, everyone, everywhere, are dealing with everything all at once. And that it is a brave and courageous choice to fight, in the face of fear, chaos, and uncertainty, with kindness. Perhaps you and I can join Evelyn in choosing kindness, for I believe that, collectively, our acts of kindness, in both law and life, can compound so as to transform even the biggest of universes and help make this universe a better place in which to live.”
The Sacks-Freund Award, which is given to a faculty member each year for teaching ability, attentiveness to student concerns and general contributions to student life at the law school, was established in 1992 and is named in honor of the late Harvard Law School Professors Albert Sacks ’48 and Paul Freund S.J.D. ’32.
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