Judge Nusrat J. Choudhury *06 smiling at the podium

2024 Baccalaureate address by federal Judge Nusrat J. Choudhury *06

— As prepared —

Thank you, President Eisgruber, for your generous words and warm welcome. I am so honored to be here with you all on this very special day and in this very special place.

Families — I know how proud you are of your graduates. Many of you have made sacrifices for your loved ones to be students here. Faculty and staff — congratulations on shepherding another class of remarkable people through their Princeton journey.

And to the Class of 2024 — you started college during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, and our world continues to present challenging times. You have been through so much, and yet here you are, on the verge of graduating with a deep and meaningful education from this great university. You have worked so hard to reach this day. Please give yourselves and each other a huge round of applause.

This is a time of celebration to mark all that you have accomplished, the skills you’ve learned, and the people you’ve met — many of whom will be friends for life. It’s also a time to reflect on what you will do with the great gift of your Princeton education. Because that is what it is — a gift.

I remember thinking deeply about what I would do with the benefit of my own education here at Princeton. When I was accepted into the master’s in public administration program at the School of Public and International Affairs, I felt like I had won the lottery. In some ways I literally had. I got the chance to study on this beautiful campus, on a full scholarship and with a living stipend.

Before coming here, I had been living in New York, working with community-based organizations that served women and children in need, including Black and Latina mothers struggling to break cycles of poverty, addiction and sexual abuse that had entangled them in the criminal system. I saw how these women met unequal justice in the legal system, and I wanted to pursue a joint degree in law and public policy to get the skills and training I needed to advance equal justice under the law.

Princeton gave me the chance to complement my legal training by learning about multi-disciplinary approaches to public issues from Nobel laureates and leading practitioners alongside classmates who hailed from around the globe and had a wide range of life experiences.

And it also meant moving up the hill to the Graduate College, living in what was basically a glorified dorm and having my meals in a gothic dining hall straight out of Hogwarts, minus the robes and owls. And even though I was in my mid-20s by then, I loved every minute of it.

I knew Princeton was special. You see, it was never foreordained that someone like me would ever study here. It was possible only because my parents made the courageous and life-altering decision to leave everyone and everything they knew and loved half a world away in a place now known as Bangladesh, to come here to the United States, to forge a new life.

Because of their courage and vision, I had the chance to live here in America, in a country where I had the opportunity to pursue an education — including an education at Princeton — and career of which many of my family members in Bangladesh, especially women and girls, could only dream.

My late father grew up during a time when Bangladesh was a part of the British colony of India. He was a colonial subject. And at the time, there were prevailing stereotypes about what he, as a Bengali and Muslim growing up in a rural community, could accomplish.

But my father was driven. He left home to go to school, boarded with his teachers and eventually made it to medical school in the region’s capital, Dhaka. And he was so smart and good, in his quiet, humble way, that he was the first person from the land that is now Bangladesh to win a Fulbright grant.

He used that grant to come to the United States in 1957 where he worked as a doctor in a hospital in St. Louis. This was before smartphones and messaging apps. He missed his family deeply and painfully — but he was good at his work and he loved this country.

My father became a neurologist, a doctor of the brain. He was so good at what he did that he got the chance to study neurology in London and Glasgow. But he didn’t like it there. He dreamed of America.

When he got the chance to do his medical residency here, he took the chance and settled in Chicago. For more than 40 years, my father treated patients of all backgrounds in multiple hospitals throughout the city, including U.S. veterans at the V.A. Hospital in Chicago, and taught medicine at the University of Illinois in Chicago. My mother joined him here and together they helped found the American Bangladeshi community in Chicago.

My parents were community leaders. They made our home a place where people came when they needed advice on how to navigate this country, encouragement, a warm meal, a place to stay. They helped so many people that my brother joked that we lived in an outpost of Holiday Inn.

And every few years, when we would visit family in Bangladesh during summer “vacations,” dozens of people would line up outside wherever we were staying — my grandmother’s home or my uncle’s apartment — begging for the chance to be treated by my father, the doctor from America. And on his “vacation,” my father would patiently and kindly evaluate and treat each and every one of them, sometimes into late hours of the night, sometimes paying for the medication they needed himself because he knew they could not afford it.

My mother was the CEO of our circle of extended family and friends, raising three kids and sacrificing her own studies to help two of her brothers who were also physicians to immigrate to the United States with their families. She worked two jobs, and did countless hours of community work, visiting people who were sick or needed help.

My father modeled for me how to be the first in the community to do something. And my parents together modeled for me that with the great opportunities of being in this country come even greater responsibilities. The responsibility to treat others with dignity and respect, to share knowledge and to do what one can do to make the path a little easier for those that follow those of us who are the first.

With parents like these, it was no surprise that I was committed to using my education and training to help make our world a better place.

As a student, I immersed myself in studying the history of our country and our government. I was inspired by the Constitution and its promise of equal justice under the law and just wanted to find the best way to advance this enduring promise.

So, while pursuing my joint degree in law and public policy, I tried to do as many different kinds of public interest legal work as possible. That took me to working on peace and conflict resolution in Bosnia-Herzegovina, documenting human rights violations in India, working on a war crimes prosecution team in the Netherlands and serving as an intern at the national office of the American Civil Liberties Union. By taking chances working at different kinds of jobs and at different kinds of organizations, I learned that there are so many ways to advance equal justice. And I found my own path.

For nearly 14 years, I worked as an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, bringing litigation to uphold the U.S. Constitution and the rule of law on behalf of poor people, U.S. veterans, women, people of color, immigrants and others facing violations of their constitutional rights.

The people I represented could not afford an attorney. None of them would have their day in court but for the legal representation that me and my colleagues provided them. Yet their cases were tremendously important, seeking to ensure that all people are treated fairly and equally by the legal system and law enforcement, regardless of wealth, race, ethnicity, religion, disability or other characteristics.

And through this work, I met people from all walks of American life. I traveled across the country and spoke to people in community halls of Milwaukee and New York City, in homes and trailers in the Mississippi Delta and the South Carolina coast, and in prisons and jails in Illinois and Georgia. I listened as they shared their lived experiences. And I learned how to advocate for their constitutional rights in federal courts across the country.

On behalf of these people, I brought emergency lawsuits to protect immigrants from dangerous detention conditions in Illinois jails. I brought class action lawsuits against the illegal jailing of poor mothers for fines and fees they could not afford, without ever being given a lawyer or court hearings where they could explain their inability to pay. And I worked with community members in Milwaukee and New York to bring litigation seeking to promote safe, constitutional and effective policing — policing based on evidence, not on race or religion.

Almost every person I represented was not looking for financial compensation. They were looking to address violations of their constitutional rights and to help ensure that what happened to them would not happen to others. My job was to ensure that they got legal representation of the highest caliber — representation that was every bit as meticulous and effective as what Fortune 500 companies could pay for.

And to my great surprise, in many of these cases, actually a majority of them, I was able to reach across and speak with people with very different viewpoints, representing the defendants in these cases, and to talk to them about how to settle the cases for significant reforms, to prevent constitutional violations from happening in the future.

By doing this, we achieved so much more for our clients and to enforce equal justice under the law. Not only did those lawsuits change practices in the specific places where we sued, they led to statewide reforms that helped hundreds of thousands of people in Georgia, Mississippi, New York, South Carolina, Washington, Wisconsin.

I was doing this work when the process opened up to apply for a role as a U.S. district judge. Although I loved my work as an advocate, I thought it was important for someone who had represented people who could not afford a lawyer to apply. And last year, after being recommended by Senator Schumer, nominated by President Biden and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, I became as a U.S. district judge and the first Muslim woman and Bangladeshi American to be confirmed in this role since the Judiciary Act was passed in 1789 — around 235 years ago.

And I believe that I have the best job in America. Every day, I go to work in a United States courthouse alongside dedicated public servants to help advance justice in cases small and large, brought by people and entities from all corners of our society.

The issues we resolve range from the relatively straightforward to the extraordinarily complex and novel. And some of them involve the most sensitive and challenging questions of our time. But every single case, in every single court appearance, I have the chance to ensure that every person, every entity who comes before my court, is treated with dignity and respect and gets a fair chance to be heard.

Since my confirmation as a judge, I have heard from hundreds of people — young people, people working in public interest law, American Muslims, Bangladeshi Americans, and people of all races and religions across this country and around the world. They express to me pride in my confirmation to serve as a U.S. district judge.

They tell me that my confirmation shows them that they too can be seen for their own excellence and can get the chance to work at the highest levels of their chosen profession. They tell me that watching me be selected as a federal judge, after a career dedicated entirely to representing people who could not afford to pay for attorneys, shows them that pursuit of work in the public interest can lead them to cultivate the skills needed to serve our country in the important role of a federal judge.

I am glad that they feel inspired, because they should. Our country is inspiring. And it is my hope that each and every one of the young people who have contacted me will work hard and put their own hat in the ring to do the job that is governed by the hallowed oath to which I swore when I joined the bench.

The oath to defend and protect the United States Constitution, to provide equal treatment to rich and poor, and to ensure that each case is decided fairly and impartially, and by so doing, ensure that the rule of law remains the backbone of our democracy — the necessary foundation for the life and liberty we hold dear. This is the oath that will govern my work for the rest of my life. Fulfilling this oath every single day with honor and gratitude is my way of paying forward to my country and to other human beings all that I have gotten from this country.

To the Class of 2024: I wish you lives filled with meaningful and rewarding work that makes use of your great talents and pays those talents forward to those around you. I hope that as you move forward in your chosen professions that you approach different opinions and perspectives not as a threat — but as an opportunity to learn.

And I hope that you, like me, take advantage of the fact that you may achieve even more than you dreamed possible by finding opportunities to work with those with whom you may disagree — even where those disagreements are significant. Acknowledge the disagreements. Understand them. And then find the common ground.

And I urge you to take chances, experiment and understand that there is no single path forward in a meaningful life. There is just taking stock at each stage of your life, to make sure you are in a role that allows you to be the change you want to see in the world, and that every day, you are doing work that you actually love to do.

I cannot wait to see and read about all that you will collectively accomplish. 

Class of 2024 — I wish you the best of luck and life. Congratulations!

Commencement 2024