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Liel Sterling

Liel Sterling ’21

A rising senior at ILR, Liel Sterling already has a resume that would be the envy of any young professional. The founder and inaugural student advocate in the Student Assembly Office of the Student Advocate, Sterling also co-founded the Ithaca Tenants Union and spent this past summer campaigning for an Ithaca rent freeze for those with financial difficulties due to COVID-19. The UTI also partnered with Cornell Law to develop a legal housing hotline and a tenants advocacy practicum.

A native of Tenafly, N.J., she serves as the president of Kappa Alpha Pi Pre-Law Fraternity and was the founder and former co-president of the Cornell American Civil Liberties Union. Sterling is a Meinig Family National Scholar and spent her past two summers interning for U.S. Senator Cory Booker and the NYC Office of Legal Affairs, Department of Policy.

How did ILR change you?

As a freshman, an upperclassmen once told me that ILR really stands for “I Love Running (things).” While he intended this comment as a joke, I soon learned that it holds a lot of truth. If you look through the websites of our campus clubs, you will find that a good number are led by ILRies, despite ILR being one of Cornell’s smallest colleges. 

From the very beginning, ILR teaches its students not only how to spot injustices, but every aspect of our curriculum encourages us to try to solve them. After we study the history of unionization in labor history, we take labor relations, where we have the opportunity to actually simulate an arbitration as the union or management. We are also able to receive credit for independent studies and internships, further motivating us to pursue real-world applications of our academic studies. ILR taught me that I am a capable leader, and that learning about injustices is not enough. Rather, I must take action to try to solve them. 

How are you making an impact through your experiences at ILR?

ILR taught me how to practice empathetic leadership. Our courses are hands-on and community-oriented; our professors teach us how to identify problems where we are and inspire us to actually solve those problems. More so, opportunities to pursue a community impact are built into our ethos and curriculum. As a junior, I was able to co-found the Ithaca Tenants Union with two other SERies under the guidance of Professor Lee Adler. 

Professor Adler helped us create a meaningful credit internship through which we were able to receive academic credit for building an organization to fill an important need in Ithaca. This semester, after partnering with Cornell Law School this summer to develop a hotline, the Ithaca Tenants Union will again partner with Cornell Law on a tenants’ advocacy practicum. While the hotline is already providing vulnerable tenants with brief legal advice, through the practicum, law students and attorneys will be able to provide representation in court to in-need tenants.

How might the mission of ILR help shape the next 75 years of work, labor and employment?

As technology and other societal developments continue to build our understanding of labor, ILR is up to the task of outlining how the law and union organizing practices must change to protect the rights of workers. Since coming to ILR, I have taken courses such as “Technology at Work” and “Employment Law: Transgender Rights, Gig Work, Workplace Safety & More.” These courses are examples of ILR professors encouraging us to think innovatively about changes in the workplace over time and how our research into and understanding of the workplace must change with it. By giving us the challenge of understanding an ever-evolving field, ILR is preparing a generation of leaders to take on difficult questions and enact legal and policy change.