When the coronavirus pandemic handed him lemons, Stefan Martinić LL.M. ’21 made lemonade—literally. Then he invited his Harvard Law School LL.M. classmates around the globe to join him for an online lemonade party, and sparked the class to create a variety of virtual social events that have bonded them closely, before the academic year even began.
After HLS announced on June 3 that in the interest of public safety, the fall 2020 semester would be online only, Martinić, a Croatian lawyer, decided against deferring his LL.M. program despite warnings from friends and family that his Harvard experience would be bereft of any real sense of community.
“Once people said it was impossible to have a true social experience, I decided to prove them wrong,” says Martinić, who also describes his efforts as “spite against the coronavirus.” “We did not want to allow the pandemic to stand between the LL.M. class of 2021.”
The class had been in regular contact since March via WhatsApp, discussing how the pandemic would affect their HLS education. When it was determined that the fall semester would need to be remote, Martinić decided to make a video for those who still chose to enroll and issued a humorous yet serious video invitation challenging them to begin building community. From his kitchen in Zagreb, Croatia, against the soundtrack of “Bittersweet Symphony” by the Verve, he cuts into a lemon, squeezes it into a glass of water, and raises it in toast as he invites his classmates to a virtual lemonade party.
Within five minutes, his first party was full—he limits them to eight people so everyone has time to talk—and in the 10 weeks since, he’s held dozens more. “The point of that video was, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” says Martinić. “If there’s a will, there’s a way. We can still socialize and network online.”
His classmates enthusiastically responded. Since June they’ve hosted many online events to substitute for the face-to-face interactions on campus they’d hoped for. One started a movie night; another started both a running club and a speed networking event. One organized a snack exchange, another started a Bollywood dance club, another created channels on the Slack app for students to connect over tech law, cooking, or other interests. And there have been a number of Zoom cocktail hours.
“We’ve been thinking of ways for the students to engage with each other but we’re so delighted to find they were way ahead of us and had already taken the initiative to get to know each other in all these creative ways,” says Jeanne Tai, assistant dean for the Graduate Program and International Legal Studies. “There’s a great spirit to the class.”
“The LL.M. Class of 2021 is proving that it’s actually possible to build a community without borders,” extolled Mark Wu, vice dean for the Graduate Program and International Legal Studies and the Henry L. Stimson Professor of Law at HLS. “It’s amazing to see how they’ve risen to the occasion through their positive can-do attitude. They’re testament to the fact that it’s truly the people and the networks they develop that make Harvard’s LL.M. program so special.”
This year’s LL.M. class, who hail from approximately 50 countries and jurisdictions, includes 12 supreme court or constitutional court clerks (for courts in India, Israel, Mexico, Pakistan, Puerto Rico, and Switzerland), one judge, and five full-time law teachers. In addition to their legal careers, they have a huge variety of diverse interests, and they include a TV actor, several poets and novelists, and a certified basketball instructor.
Before the pandemic interrupted normal human interactions, it was easy to take community for granted, Martinić and others say. But forced social isolation has prompted more appreciation for and attention to fostering relationships. “I have a very strong feeling and intuition that we wouldn’t be as close as we are now, at least at this point, if we didn’t have the pandemic,”says M. Rifky Wicaksono LL.M. ’21, an expert in competition law from Yogyakarta, Indonesia. “I think we would take [community] for granted.” But under the circumstances, “people didn’t want to lose out and waste any time.” He adds, “I feel extremely proud of my class.”
While Martinić was happy to kickstart the efforts, he emphasizes that “it would not be possible without the others, [and] a lot of people jumping in with their own content.” Iqra Saleem Khan LL.M. ’21, who is from Lahore, Pakistan and will focus on feminist legal scholarship at HLS, was the first to respond to Martinić’s lemonade challenge. The new class was understandably disappointed when they learned that the fall semester would have to be online, recalls Khan, “and in comes Stefan’s video. It really lifted my spirits.” A singer who has worked as a video producer, Khan filmed a lemonade video of her own, complete with sound effects and her laughing presentation of a tiny lemon, the only kind she could find in the local market.
Inspired by the lemonade videos, Wicaksono suggested what he describes as “speed dating—without the dating part.” He’s held two of these gatherings so far, with at least two-thirds of the class participating each time. Provided with fun questions to prompt conversation, they break into groups of five; a few minutes later they reconstitute into new groups. Wicaksono has also organized a running club, which 18 classmates have joined; they post photos of themselves achieving weekly distance goals.
Ikram Ais LL.M. ’21, a human rights lawyer from Algeria currently living in Berlin, started an online movie club. She offered her classmates three movies from which to choose; they selected “The Battle of Algiers” and watched it simultaneously via the Kanopy app. Afterwards, Ais led a discussion on the history and politics of Algiers and related issues of identity, freedom of movement, and civilian rights during war. She is holding another movie night in September. In July, Ais also began hosting weekly cocktail parties for the class to discuss their countries, hobbies, and career aspirations. Through the various events organized by the class, she has spoken to nearly all of her classmates. “It’s been really fun,” she says.
Mary Rhauline “Rory” Torres LL.M. ’21, who is from Taguig City, a part of greater Manila, the Philippines, set up Slack channels for the class to bond over interests such as food and tech law. Since the class won’t be together to share each other’s traditional foods, Gal Ben Haim LL.M. ’21, from Ramat Gan, in the metropolitan district of Tel Aviv, Israel, organized students into pairs for an “International Snack Box Swap Challenge.” The pairs are sending each other surprise boxes full of candies and other non-perishable snacks that they love and are popular in their countries, which they can enjoy while studying.
In mid-August, Martinić launched a “Share Your City Challenge.” He posted a short video of himself pointing out key sites in Dubrovnik, where his family is from, and offering fun facts including a particularly relevant one for the times: in the 14th century, Dubrovnik, which at the time was the Ragusa Republic, became the first nation-state to impose quarantines on travelers. Martinić invited his classmates to host videos about their hometowns or the places in which they find themselves living during the pandemic. Students quickly responded from Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, Lahore, and other locales.
“Again, this isn’t something people usually do when they’re on campus. So it might be counterintuitive, but dare I say we will have more social connections in a pandemic class than a normal class,” says Martinić, who holds an LL.M. from the London School of Economics and who is planning to focus on law and technology at HLS. “I think I have spoken with at least sixty of my [HLS] classmates for at least an hour each before the LL.M. program even started. I’m not sure I spoke with sixty of my colleagues at my last LL.M. in the whole year.”
Khan, who in August also issued a recipe-swap challenge to the class, agrees. She says she talked with at least 80 percent of her classmates even before orientation. “I haven’t spoken to as many students in my undergraduate studies,” she says.
HLS, for its part, is delighted. “For LL.M.s, a big part of the experience is getting to know each other and having friends around world. Then it turns out they’ve been doing all these things themselves online, full of creativity and imagination and verve,” says Tai. This year’s LL.M. orientation included an online version of its usual events, including one of the most popular events each year, Social Networking 101, which Tai says is similar to the “speed networking” event organized by Wicaksono. “But they are so far ahead of us, we feel like old fuddy duddies,” she says. “We didn’t need to worry about them because they are doing great.”
Wicaksono, Martinić, and others say the official HLS orientation events have been successful, too, and they emphasize their appreciation to faculty and administrators for making the best of the difficult situation. Still, they all hope very much that they can get to the HLS campus soon.
“I really want to get there for at least two or three months to actually meet the people,” says Martinić, even if it means hybrid classes and social distancing. “And if we do get two to three months together, I think it will be the top,” all the more so because his classmates already know each other so well. “I think the joy will be enormous.”