Sharing Commencement with President Obama

Graduating Rutgers Law School student, who also grew up in Hawaii, is inspired by president's commitment to civil rights

By Amber E. Hopkins-Jenkins

The president of the United States was not the only lawyer who grew up in Hawaii at Rutgers' commencement this past Sunday.

Like President Obama, Michael Ganoot, who will graduate from Rutgers Law School in Camden with a juris doctorate, was born and raised on the island of Oahu.

"Hawaii is a great place to grow up and live. It's really ethnically diverse, which brings a lot of different opinions and perspectives, and you're always 20 or 30 minutes from a beach," he says.

Ganoot, who is of Japanese, Filipino and Puerto Rican descent, grew up in the town of Waipahu, about 15 miles from Honolulu.

"As a state, we were very excited for President Obama when he was elected. We're extremely proud to have a person from Hawaii in the office."

After commencement, Ganoot will return to Hawaii to prepare for his home state's bar exam. He plans to practice administrative law through an agency, preferably the Department of Justice or Homeland Security, in the nation's capital after licensure.

Ganoot realized the importance of law in society and decided to become an attorney following the national tragedies of Sept. 11, which occurred during his junior year of high school. He says the tone of the country changed and racial profiling and discrimination against Arab Americans and Middle Eastern immigrants became more commonplace.

"This is not the first time this has been done," he says, recalling a high school field trip to the Honouliuli camp in western Oahu, where hundreds of Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. (The Obama administration designated the site as a national monument in 2015.)

"It's scary how easily our country can turn on people during conflict. Racial profiling doesn't have to happen to people who look like me for me to be sensitive and want to affect change. Marginalized people usually suffer first and worst."

Ganoot did not pursue his goal to be a lawyer immediately. After graduating from the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 2008 with a degree in political science and government, he worked in retail management for Best Buy for five years to save money for law school. He'd never left Hawaii, but wanted to experience living elsewhere and decided to research east coast law programs.

Apparently, leaving Hawaii is not the most popular idea.

"People on the continent think I'm crazy to have left 'paradise' for law school," he says. "But Hawaii is obviously geographically isolated. One can't just drive to explore new states and new places."

Ganoot didn't even visit campus before matriculating. Rutgers' academic rigor, the high concentration of lawyers in Philadelphia and New York City, and the opportunity to have a new vantage point were enough to help him make his final decision.

During law school, Ganoot, who came out as gay during college, served as secretary and vice president for Outlaws, an affinity and outreach group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender law students. The organization connects with LGBT attorneys and students at other law programs in the Philadelphia area; fundraises for AIDS Walk; and raises awareness of minority issues, particularly law enforcement's interactions with minorities.

He considers the Obama administration's advocacy for equality and LGBT rights unparalleled.

"The impact of his presidency -- from the Supreme Court's historic ruling striking down the Defense of Marriage Act to its most recent stance against transgender discrimination in North Carolina -- will help us move forward, at least legally," Ganoot says.

"Social acceptance of the LGBT community is a separate issue, but there have been giant steps in the right direction."

Ganoot spent most of his final year of law school participating in the Rutgers Civil Practice Clinic, which is both a law course and a law office for the Camden community. He has represented clients in Social Security benefits and adoption disputes under the supervision of a faculty attorney.

"It's really fulfilling to apply what we've learned to the problems of real people who don't have the means to get representation," he says. "We've provided such a valuable service, and it's been an opportunity to experience our future role and workload as attorneys and counselors."

Ganoot is excited to see the president in person and that his parents will make the long journey from Hawaii to New Jersey for his graduation.

"This is a historic opportunity... to have the president of the United States -- from Hawaii -- speaking during commencement, particularly one that celebrates Rutgers 250th anniversary. It's all pretty fantastic."

This piece originally published in Rutgers Today.
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