Crossing the commencement stage at St. John’s Carnesecca Arena, Alessia Riccio stopped and turned to face the crowd of celebrants. As Dean Michael A. Simons placed the ceremonial hood over her head to applause and cheers, she looked up into the stands, hoping to catch a glimpse of the man who has been her biggest supporter on her path to becoming a public defender.
“My dad inspired me to go to law school,” says Riccio, who was raised in Smithtown on Long Island. “He came to the United States from Italy when he was 21 years old, uprooting his life to move to a country he had never been to before. He wanted to create a better life for his future family. And, after watching his hard work and dedication navigating life as an immigrant, I knew I wanted to help make life easier for people like him with the privilege I’ve been given.”
As she pursued her studies at St. John’s Law, Riccio was drawn to the work of the Public Interest Center, which offers students a range of opportunities to help underserved and marginalized individuals and communities. The Center’s signature event, the annual Public Interest Auction, raises significant funds to support the Law School’s Summer Public Interest Fellowship Program and other public service initiatives. Ricco was the beneficiary of the event’s fundraising success, receiving a fellowship to work with the Exoneration Initiative the summer after her 1L year.
It was a formative time. “That summer, I had my first hands-on experience with criminal law and incarcerated clients,” Riccio shares. “I read our clients' stories, spoke to their families, and researched innocence arguments. With that insight, I embodied the truth I already knew deep down: Each of my clients is a human with a story that deserves to be heard. I knew that I wanted to work directly with clients facing criminal charges to hear their stories, empathize with their experiences, and help them avoid the dangers of entering the criminal system.”
The next summer, as a repeat fellowship recipient, Riccio interned at the Legal Aid Society’s Decarceration Project, and then stayed on as a 3L to work in the organization’s Manhattan Criminal Defense Practice. “My two fellowship summers were vital to my success and growth in law school and on my career path,” she says. “As a first-generation student, it seemed impossible to intern without getting paid. But I wasn’t willing to give up my dream of working in the public interest and helping others. The Fellowship Program made that dream a reality, and I couldn’t be more grateful.”
Now, as a new St. John’s Law graduate, Riccio looks forward to starting her career at Brooklyn Defenders in the fall. “I’ve been dreaming of this moment for almost three years. Every client I’ve met so far, every story I’ve listened to, every creative legal argument I’ve crafted has led me here. I’m thankful that my law degree has given me the power to represent my clients—not to speak for them or take away their individuality, but to bolster their voices and provide them with the opportunities they deserve. I know public defense work won’t be easy, but I’m my father’s daughter. I have his fighting spirit, and I’m ready.”
This year’s Public Interest Auction took place online and in person. With its success, and with additional support from generous alumni and friends, the Law School announced its 2022 Summer Public Interest Fellows and their placements:
Together, these 81 fellowships will provide around $460,000 in support for deserving St. John’s Law students as they build practical knowledge and skills this summer. To learn more about the Summer Public Interest Fellowship Program and related support opportunities, please contact Ashleigh Georgia Kashimawo, Director of Public Interest Programming, at firstname.lastname@example.org.