College Senior Born on 9/11 in New York City Discusses Her Decision to Attend Law School

  • September 6, 2023
Three smiling people sitting in the stands of a baseball game.

Caleigh Leiken with her parents, Jon and Erika

Like all college seniors, I am balancing competing emotions as I move through what feels like the last year of growing up. I am glad to have this year to spend with friends here at Ohio State and to root for the Buckeyes on Saturdays in the Shoe. I am sad that I will soon say goodbye to college, a time when I learned how to live on my own, and where I witnessed the world emerging anew after the oppression and loneliness of COVID-19. And I look ahead to my life and my future with a combination of optimism and dread.

I feel hopeful because I believe that we seniors, the class of 2024, are ready to do things in the world that will make it better; that, in a unique way, we can help to make the world a more fair, and more safe, and more kind place because of the backdrop of our birth stories and our coming of age. We came into the world at a time of pain and fear around September 11, 2001, and we became adults during a global pandemic. Some members of our class tragically lost family members or even a parent on 9/11, pain and loss that most of us cannot begin to understand. Eighteen years later, as high school seniors, people were dying all around us, and rites of passage like prom and graduation and freshman orientation were canceled or conducted online. Like the Twin Towers themselves, dual tragedies bookended our childhood. And yet, as a group, we found hope in so many things: how celebrities like Jon Stewart used their platform to fight for 9/11 victims’ legislation, and how scientists worked so speedily on vaccines to end the COVID-19 pandemic. And, during this time and through our pain, we also found ways to experience joy: concerts and football games and travel and so many of the things that make college great. We know, in a unique way, what it means to fight for hope and joy, and to never give up that fight even when it feels like the end of the world.

A newborn identification form from Mount Sinai hospital dated 9/11/01 with a baby's footprints and other identifying information.

For us college seniors, living with a sense of dread has been part of life for our entire lives. There is also a sense of responsibility that I think we all feel to get immediately to work making contributions to the world, the real world; to make the world more ready for whatever surprising challenge comes next. When you grow up in between 9/11 and COVID-19, you live with the ubiquitous sense that something terribly bad and terribly shocking can happen at any time. We college seniors are not paralyzed by this reality, because of what we’ve lived through. Instead, we feel like we have internalized the prevailing lesson of the last 22 years: that big, scary problems are solved when we care for one another as a community. And, we feel a kind of impatience to build and fortify structures that protect us and others, and to begin giving back to the world as quickly as we can.

For me personally, from my 18th birthday to today, I discovered an unanticipated calling that brings me full circle to where my life began: it has everything to do with lawyers and the law. As T.S. Eliot beautifully wrote, “The end of my exploring is to arrive where I started and to know the place for the first time.” For me, the structures that I want to help build and fortify are rooted in the ideals embedded within our democracy. These ideals floated in the air above and around me, like an infant’s mobile, during my very early childhood. It was my parents, two lawyers, who put them there.

As I have written about before for this blog, I was born on September 11, 2001 in Manhattan. My very pregnant mom – then a public defender at the Legal Aid Society – walked more than five miles that morning from her Chambers Street office near Ground Zero to my parents’ apartment at 96th and Riverside Drive on the Upper West Side. My parents jumped into a cab to Mt. Sinai Hospital, where Dr. Joyce Kim brought me into the world by emergency c-section at 5:15 pm that day.

Three smiling adults standing in front of an American flag. The woman in the center cradles a baby.

In my childhood home in Shaker Heights, there is a photo of me as a two-month-old baby with my parents and a woman standing in front of an American flag. In a house filled with baby pictures of me and my two younger siblings, this photo has blended into the background of my life for two decades, but it was not until recently that I realized what the photo is about. It was taken on the day in November 2001 that my dad was sworn into his job as an Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York by legendary U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White. I have now learned all about Ms. White, the first woman to hold the top federal prosecutor’s role in the SDNY, one of the leading branches of the Department of Justice. Ms. White went on to serve as one of the first female chairs of the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission, appointed by President Obama. The photo in my parents’ living room is a photo of three lawyers whose careers were focused on service, and a newborn baby who entered the world on the day that 2,977 people lost their lives in a terrorist attack.

I am inspired by the faces of my parents and Ms. White on this day, just two months after 9/11. They are faces of hope and determination, and a belief in the law as the pathway to make things better. In the past several years, I’ve seen similar expressions of hope in people that I admire, people who believe — like my parents and Mary Jo White — that being a lawyer is a profession of helping to make the world more fair, more safe, and more kind. This includes Justice Michael Donnelly of the Ohio Supreme Court, who showed me during a summer internship how the justice system can better protect criminal defendants during plea bargaining. And it includes the amazing staff of The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, who this past summer taught me about providing a right to an attorney in eviction proceedings for vulnerable individuals and families, because safe and affordable housing is a fundamental right.

Young woman stands at 9/11 Memorial & Museum podium

Caleigh speaks at the Museum

And it includes the staff and volunteers of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, my spiritual home away from home where I have served as a Student Ambassador since I first visited the place of my birth during the summer of 2019. I am inspired by the way that the 9/11 Memorial and the team of professionals who work there teach us not only to remember what happened and to honor those lost on that day, but to fight for positive change for victims and their families through the law.

As I prepare to leave college next spring, I feel a calling to help make the world better through the law. I am excited to enter into my next chapter of law school and to work everyday to help make the world a better place. I know my fellow members of the Class of 2024 feel their own callings, inspired by the unique, sometimes scary and often inspiring journey that we have shared together. And together, next spring, we enter the real world to give back and to say thank you to the communities that cared for us as we grew up, and as we prepared for this moment.

By Caleigh Leiken

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