The scene last Saturday outside of the Jenny Craig Pavilion was abuzz with excitement. Family members, friends, classmates and other graduates took turns getting a picture with new University of San Diego School of Law graduate Neru Joy Utomi shortly after the commencement ceremony. Smiles, laughter, hugs and a few balloons were present. Parents Mike and Stella cherished their daughter’s achievement. Older brother Michael was grateful for a break from his military commitments to be there. Younger brothers, Moses (pictured, far left) and Edred (right), after taking a few serious photos, acted on an impulse and playfully scooped up their sister into their arms and lifted Joy off her feet.
This is the kind of fun that every college student looks forward to at the end of his or her academic journey. For Joy, earning her Juris Doctor degree through USD’s four-year, part-time law program, last Saturday’s celebration couldn’t have ended any better.
Actually, it will continue. At this Sunday’s College of Arts and Sciences undergraduate commencement ceremony, the Utomi family will return to the JCP to celebrate as Moses receives his bachelor’s degree in psychology.
Oh, and don’t forget about Edred, a sophomore Communication Studies and Theatre Arts major. “It’s still two years away and I’m trying not to think about it yet,” he said, “but I’m sure there will be more of the same happiness and joy that’s here today.”
From Nigeria to USD Law Graduate
Getting to this place of happiness was going to happen for Joy Utomi. Born in Benin, Nigeria, the Utomi’s lone daughter among five children, she came to the United States with her parents and older brothers, Michael and Fabian, in 1987. Moses and Edred were born in the U.S.
The family left Nigeria for reasons that many immigrants do: “My parents wanted to give their children better opportunities, better resources, better education, more stability and a brighter future … basically the American Dream,” she said. “My father finished engineering school. They wanted to move to the U.S. It took time to get the appropriate papers and save their money … but they felt they could provide more for us here.”
The family intially came to Southern California, but moved to Las Vegas so Mike could seize opportunities during the city’s industrial boom. Joy completed high school in Las Vegas. She moved to Los Angeles and attended Loyola Marymount University. She considered USD, even checked out the law school, but chose LMU and earned undergraduate degrees in political science and communications. Upon graduation in 2005, she interned with the Las Vegas FOX-TV affiliate as a video editor. A year later, she was at the ABC-TV affiliate as an associate news producer, a job with many responsibilities and tight deadlines.
“If there’s anything that could prepare me for law school, it was being an associate producer for a news organization. It’s fast-paced and the writing is intensive,” she said. “I was constantly juggling a lot of moving pieces to get to the end product. Being so young and being in that environment, I really just had to be professional very quickly and learn how to get things done. It really helped coming to law school where it’s a whole new environment. My background gave me patience and strength to say ‘OK, I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m going to get through this and succeed.”
USD’s law school, she knew, was where she wanted to be. “I liked the San Diego community. I liked that it was a smaller community than Los Angeles, but still had big city resources, opportunities, culture and benefits. I liked that USD was the best law school in San Diego. I think students who go here have an advantage. There’s a huge alumni base, the program is well founded and well represented. It drew me in from the beginning; everything I’d heard about it was good.”
The first year, she said, was extremely intense. “Everyone I talk to describes law school as a marathon and not a sprint. Well, that first year, to me, was a marathon and a sprint. You feel you’re constantly running and doing it forever. As hard as I thought I worked as an undergraduate, it was really unmatched in law school.”
Not that Utomi would trade her law school experience for anything. She praised professors such as Yale Kamisar (Criminal Procedure course) and Miranda McGowan (Constitutional Law II) as dynamic and engaging educators whose learning environment was fruitful. She admired faculty mentors Roy Brooks (Black Law Student Association advisor) and Michael Devitt (founder of USD’s Paul A. McLennon Sr, Honors Moot Court Competition) for their wisdom, dedication and loyalty.
“We have a lot of law professors here that love what they do, give so much of themselves and are always there for students,” she said. Utomi expressed appreciation for the overall law student experience. “It isn’t just about what you learn in the classroom or what you take to a job. It’s about being a contributing member, being part of a greater community of law students. One thing I’ve loved is that students are so active. You get to know students so well through moot court, clubs and organizations and intramural sports. I think it’s a much closer and cohesive community. It’s not the cutthroat mentality. What happens here builds a better community.”
Utomi’s activities includes being secretary for the Student Bar Association’s Executive Board, a member of associate and executive boards for Moot Court, a rewarding experience as tournament director for the McLennon Honors Moot Court event, being BLSA president, working for four years in the law school’s admissions office and playing on four championship teams in the Intramural Sports League.
“It’s been an amazing journey. There are so many people who’ve made my law school career amazing, from professors to my Moot Court family and my BLSA family. Working in the admissions office was definitely a family atmosphere. I can’t thank Carl Eging and Jorge Garcia enough. Lizzette Herrera in Law Career Services has been like a second mom. She’s helped me with networking and she’s given me advice on how to present yourself in the legal community.”
She’s now looking ahead to the California Bar exam in July, but Utomi understands what she’s already accomplished. “I value the law degree for more than just the job it can get me or that it can lead me to a certain career path. It represents four years of blood, sweat and tears; endless hours in the Legal Research Center; staying on campus that first year to study until sunrise. It’s been an invaluable experience that’s made me a stronger person. It makes me realize I’m capable of a lot more than I thought coming in.”
Moses, USD a Good Fit
Moses Utomi transferred to USD after spending one year at Community College of Southern Nevada. Like his sister, he was impressed with what he saw at USD.
“The personal growth opportunities, social connections and the academics have been everything I imagined it would be,” he said. “USD is a very specific campus. I like the small size and all of the things available to me.”
Moses’ diverse experiences include two years as a resident assistant (RA), a reporter for the student newspaper, The Vista, going on men’s retreats through University Ministry and most recently, performing music with Edred on campus. Moses plays guitar, piano and sings, but enjoys songwriting most of all.
Another passion is seeing the other side of a university. He has worked for USD’s camps and conferences held during the summer. “I get to see how the campus runs,” he said. “It’s cool to see the university from that side. It’s a well-oiled machine. A lot of work and care goes into maintaining it.”
Academically, Moses said he’s thoroughly enjoyed classes taught by professors across many disciplines, which speaks to the strength of a USD liberal arts education. He noted Assistant Psychology Professors Rachel Blaser, PhD, and Anne Koenig, PhD, have been especially influential.
“Professor Blaser has been fantastic. She teaches in a way that makes the class very engaging and helps you retain the material better, forcing you to really think about what you’re doing,” he said.
Moses said Koenig’s course, Psychology of Gender, where he was one of only two males enrolled, was fun and gave him a good perspective on the politics of gender. He also counted classes with Assistant English Professor Jericho Brown, PhD, Communication Studies Professor Larry Williamson, PhD, and Communication Studies Instructor William Fallon as highlights.
Moses won’t leave USD after Sunday’s graduation. He’ll work on campus this summer before exploring other opportunities. Thanks to USD, though, he’s ready for anything.
“They say college years are the best years of your life. They’re right. I’ve loved it a lot. I’ve really enjoyed my time at USD,” he said.
The Future Graduate
Being together means everything to the Utomis. “We’re a very close-knit family,” Edred said.
For Edred, the chance to reunite with his sister and brother at USD has been a thrill. Edred praised them for helping him adjust to college life. Living with a roommate was one of those adjustments, but having Moses there as an RA helped. Edred has leaned on Joy for advice when he’s felt stressed.
“It’s been fantastic these last few years,” Edred said. “It was a new place for me so it was great to have them here. We go to church together, have meals together. It’s always nice.”
Joy agreed: “It’s been great to have my brothers here. It’s nice to walk out of the library and randomly run into them or see them in the SLP or Aromas. There are a lot of long days; to see friends is nice, but to see my brothers is a really good feeling. It’s a comfort to the soul.”
Now that Joy and Moses are preparing for the next chapter of their lives, it’s time for Edred to do the same. Moses, however, thinks the youngest Utomi sibling is ready: “Edred is a superstar. I think he’s going to flourish. He’s young and college is difficult for everybody. Being with him those two years, I think, helped him get through some of the harder parts and he’s benefitted from it.”
Graduation for his older siblings makes it a reality for Edred, but he seems up to the task.
“Seeing my sister and brother graduate makes me feel like I can do anything,” he said. “They’ve been my inspiration these last couple of years. It’s a great feeling to see them both succeed in everything they’ve done. It lets me know that I’m on the right track.”
– Ryan T. Blystone