Advice to graduates: “Be brave”

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Advice to graduates: “Be brave”
Neha Chugh

Do not be afraid to step outside your comfort zone.

That is some of the advice Neha Chugh, founder of Chugh Law Professional Corporation, has for graduates of St. Lawrence College, where she received an honorary diploma during the May 31 convocation ceremonies.

A question and answer session was posted on the college's web page.

What does this award mean to you personally?

This award is of tremendous meaning to me. It signifies change, a focus on equity, diversity, and inclusion, and acceptance of newcomers to this wonderful community. When I opened my law practice in Cornwall in 2014, I was a newcomer to the United Counties of Stormont, Dundas, Glengarry, and Akwesasne. The early days were not easy, but I found my way through community support and local networks. I am grateful to all the clients and community members who trusted me, often on their hardest days.

I found my way as a lawyer in Cornwall by focusing on Chugh Law's priorities of serving our clients, providing affordable legal services to the community, and promoting access to justice in the East region. I nurtured my support network in the community and built a strong team at Chugh Law. It is my personal goal to ensure that all newcomers to Cornwall are welcomed with compassion and respect.

How have SLC students or the college in general intersected with your work or community?

I have had the opportunity to teach at both St. Lawrence College and Iohahi:io in Akwesasne, opportunities that have been the bright spots of my career. As an Instructor, I have always felt like I have learned just as much from the students as the students learn from the curriculum. I have hired St. Lawrence College graduates and am proud of the high quality of work they continue to contribute to Chugh Law.  I have made wonderful friends who work at the college and who are passionate about honing their skills as educators – Jennifer Haley and Denise Nielson to name just a few. I am so grateful to be surrounded by the hard work and pedagogy that comes out of SLC.

What path have you followed, that sees you here today? What were some ingredients of your success?

I am what is labelled in professional circles as a “trailing spouse,” meaning I followed my husband east of our respective hometowns in south-western Ontario for his career.  At the time of our big move just over a decade ago, I was a mom to our toddler and had just given birth to our second daughter.  Life was a blur for our family, of building careers, babies, and trying to establish ourselves in a part of the world that was new to us.  I embraced the new challenge and set out to accomplish my goal of building community capacity in Cornwall via an access to justice model at Chugh Law.  It was grit, determination, hard work, and a deep love for the law that helped our team meet these goals. Every day, our clients, the community of Cornwall, trust us to serve them. This trust is sacred to us, and in return we do our best to deliver high quality legal services.  This is a significant responsibility, one that we take very seriously. I have surrounding myself with a team of staff and lawyers with shared commitment our clients as well as Chugh Law's goal of facilitating Access to Justice to the United Counties of Stormont, Dundas, Glengarry, and Akwesasne.

Who has been your biggest inspiration, and why?

My maternal grandmother, my lovely nanima, who passed away in 2020.  She came to Canada from New Delhi, India in the 1970s, with three children. She never let them, or any of her seven grandchildren, forget the importance and magic of education.  She retrained as a teacher at York University when she came to Canada, while also working the night shift at a button factory to support the family. After she requalified as a teacher, she worked as a primary school teacher for decades with the Toronto District School Board, focusing her work on special education. She was patient and kind.  She embodied love, grit, humour, and compassion.  I miss her every day and am inspired by her memory.  When she passed away, our family was proud to create a scholarship in her name at the Faculty of Education at York University.

What words of inspiration/wisdom can you share with SLC graduates? (A perspective or attitude to approach your career with practical advice, such as pursuing a professional designation, lifelong learning, networking, etc.)

Be courageous! Say yes to new opportunities that you push your boundaries of comfort and safety. You don't know where your life is going to take you and it can be very uncomfortable to stand up for what is right.

Growing up in India, my grandmother had no idea that she would be raising her children and working as a teacher in Toronto. Tremendous courage put her on a plane to immigrate to Canada in the 1970s. Twenty years ago, I did not see my career blossoming in a place called Cornwall, and to fall in love with serving this community.

At that time, I was planning a completely different career as a social worker in my hometown of Guelph, not as a lawyer in eastern Ontario. Bravely saying yes to new opportunities for education and my career carved a path for me that was completely unplanned. There were so many days that were uncomfortable – bad days in court, missing my kids' special events because I was stuck at work, tense moments with other professionals. It is ok to experience failure, but with courage and heart, my life has sent me in a positive trajectory because I maintained a good attitude, an open mind, and welcomed opportunities that were presented to me.

Be brave!  Give yourself a voice to the community's most vulnerable. Find your medium – writing, speaking, poetry, music, community service in the trades. Highlight your strengths and let yourself shine!

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