Turning Tragedy Into Legacy

UND School of Law graduating class dedicates gift to professor’s family following heartbreaking loss

Every year, the graduating class of the University of North Dakota School of Law gives back to their new alma mater with a gift, usually in the form of a bench, tree, artwork, or another item to be used by the future students of UND Law. The Class of 2018, however, wanted to do something unique.

“Trees are great. Benches are great. But we wanted to do something that would have a lasting impact and be meaningful to the school, the students, and our class,” said Kate Drechsel, ’18. 

Kate and her classmate Ashley Bukowski talked through a way their class could do that and also honor their professor, Julia Ernst, who had tragically lost her 14-year-old son, Shuwang, in a drowning accident the previous summer. So, the Class of 2018 created the Shuwang Ernst Clement Memorial Scholarship endowment, which will be awarded each year to a first-year law student, with preference to students who reflect Shuwang’s compassion for others, and who will enhance diversity within the UND School of Law.

Life of Shuwang

Julia and her husband, Rich, went to China with their daughter, Cosette, in the summer of 2015 on a heritage tour to learn more about the history and culture of the country where Cosette was born.

While visiting the orphanage where they adopted Cosette, the family met Shuwang. “He just pulled at our heart strings,” Julia said. “But it was a race against the clock. When we got home, we asked our adoption agency if he was eligible for adoption, and they said yes, but we had to adopt him before he aged out on his birthday, February 14 (2016).”

The papers came through the day before the family left Minnesota to travel back to China in late January.

“She was very open about the adoption,” Ashley said. “The whole class was so excited for their family and even more excited to meet him over the next year.”

Ernst Scholarship

From left: Ashley Bukowski, Julia Ernst, daughter, Cosette, Rich Clement, and Kate Drechsel.

That year, Shuwang and Cosette met the Class of 2018 at the UND Homecoming Parade, various Law School events, occasionally in class, and when the family hosted students at their home for dinners. During that time, they got to know Shuwang, who had a passion for trying new things and living life to its fullest. He loved playing ping pong, golfing, fishing, singing, and much more.

After hearing about Shuwang’s death, the Class of 2018 wanted to do something special for Julia and her family. “Professor Ernst creates an environment where everyone feels welcome, and her kids are the same way, so welcoming,” Ashley said.

Kathryn Rand, Dean of the Law School, appreciates that Julia teaches her students lessons inside and outside of the classroom. “Julia is one of our faculty stars. She’s excellent at building relationships with students and colleagues, and she’s an extraordinarily generous person,” she said. “The class’s idea to create a scholarship was really a heartfelt gesture on their part. It’s turning a tragedy into something positive. That heartfeltness is incredibly special. I hope the scholarship recipients carry that throughout the rest of their lives.”

Dean Rand was so moved by the students’ thoughtfulness that she offered to match their contributions to the scholarship fund dollar-for-dollar.

Ashley and Kate said the Class of 2018 hopes scholarship recipients show the same passion for life that Shuwang did, and they hope the scholarship reflects how much law students care about their professors.

Cosette hopes that the scholarship will carry on her brother’s openhearted outlook and reflect how deeply he touched everyone. “We want people to know that Shuwang cared about everyone,” she said. “Even if people 30 years from now don’t know the exact meaning of the scholarship, I want them to know they are cared for, like Shuwang was cared for.”

The family hopes recipients exhibit Shuwang’s enthusiasm for life. “I would love for students to know his passion for trying new things, his perseverance through difficult circumstances, and his spirit: to take everything on full force, embrace the challenges, and never give up,” Julia added. “We want students to know that’s what we hope for them: that they have passion and perseverance, to overcome the hard times in life and live life to the fullest.”

UND legacy

The Class of 2018, UND Law staff and faculty, the Ernst-Clement family, and Dean Rand’s match of the students’ gifts has raised close to $17,000 toward the scholarship endowment. “Our short term goal is to ensure this is endowed to allow it to continue into perpetuity, and from there, to continue to help it grow,” Rich Clement said.  The minimum amount for an endowed scholarship to begin payout is $25,000.

“It’s exciting to see students recognize the commitment of their professors and take a tragedy and turn it into a wonderful legacy here at UND,” said Nick Jensen, Director of Development for the School of Law. “The class and the family wanted it to be forever, and this is the way to do that.” He added that students and their families can donate for years to come and make a lasting impact on the law school by providing even more scholarships.

The Ernst-Clement family is grateful for all the support they’ve received through this tough time. “We want to thank everyone who has contributed to the scholarship, everyone in the law school family, and the community in general,” Julia said.

If you’d like to give to the Shuwang Ernst Clement Memorial Scholarship endowment, contact Nick Jensen at 701.777.5486 or visit UNDalumni.org/shuwang.

by: Lauren Vetter, Content Specialist at the University of North Dakota Alumni Association and Foundation

Original Story - UND Today, August 29, 2018