Top law student receives commemorative Stephanian Prize
26 August 2020
The global pandemic could not thwart a prizegiving ceremony for an award, established to celebrate kindness and friendship.
The Tom and Julie Stephanian Prize saw speakers and guests from half way across the globe Zoom in virtually last week, to congratulate this year’s winner, Auckland Law School student Oliver Yates.
Oliver, who started his law and arts conjoint degree in 2014, and is due
to complete with honours this year, won the award for achieving the
highest mark, an A+, in the course Global Environmental Law.
Oliver, who started his law and arts conjoint degree in 2014, and is due to complete with honours this year, won the award for achieving the highest mark, an A+, in the course Global Environmental Law.
The $500 prize, established in 2018 and funded by Professor Diane Brand and Gregory J Thwaite, graduates of the University of Auckland, commemorates the hospitality and generosity of the Stephanian family of Massachusetts, USA, during their studies at Harvard University in the 1980s.
“In 1984, I was an international student heading to Harvard from New Zealand. The university asked if I wanted a host family and I said yes,” says Diane.
A few weeks later she was given Tom and Julie’s name. They wrote to her, enclosing a photo (above) and met her at the airport when she arrived in Boston. That was the beginning of an enduring friendship.
Although Diane lived on campus, Tom and Julie were the family she went to for weekends and special holidays like Thanksgiving and Easter when the Harvard dormitories were closed. “The family was an important ‘window on America’ and the true warmth and generosity of its people away from the high-stress competitive environment of an Ivy League graduate school,” she says.
Diane was such a success with the family, that the next year they hosted another New Zealander, Greg Thwaite.
The Stephanians, of Armenian ethnicity, had strong connections with Harvard. Julie worked at the Law School, while Tom owned and ran a popular restaurant called Tommy’s Lunch in Harvard Square for 34 years.
“Armenians are a small minority in America, and a tight community who are very church-focused,” says Diane. “We went to church with the family and enjoyed the atmosphere of orthodox ceremony in spite of an all-Armenian liturgy which we didn’t understand. The extended family and the wider community welcomed us as full members of Tom and Julie’s Antipodean family as they noted with respect that our ANZAC grandfathers had fought the Ottomans during the time of the Armenian massacres.”
For Greg, the Stephanians were a wondrous part of his Harvard experience. “We were absorbed into their family with all the American traditions and also the Armenian ones.”
The Stephanians and their incorporated New Zealand kin stay in touch, attending each other’s special events. More than three decades later, Diane, an architect as well as Dean of the Faculty of Creative Arts and Industries at the University of Auckland, and Greg, an international lawyer and the Honorary Consul for Panama, decided to endow a prize in Tom and Julie’s name.
“We wanted to celebrate this kindness and friendship across cultures, borders, space and time,” says Diane.
The prize rotates between architecture and law, to reflect Diane’s discipline and one of Greg’s disciplines (his other was Classical Greek).
Julie Stephanian, her daughter Dora, and Dora’s daughter Julia, were special guests at the Zoom prizegiving, which was hosted by Professor Pene Mathew, Dean of Auckland Law School.
In so many ways, the prize is about 'paying it forward' and Oliver has been grappling with what we must do now to secure the future of the planet. The event reminded us of the importance of hope and hard work as we live through this very fraught time.
“Holding the award ceremony online allowed the Stephanian family to join us, in addition to our two generous donors, and of course, the very talented winner and his parents,” said Professor Mathew. ‘This made it quite special. In so many ways, the prize is about “paying it forward” and Oliver has been grappling with what we must do now to secure the future of the planet. The event reminded us of the importance of hope and hard work as we live through this very fraught time.’
Oliver, who has recently started his professional legal studies while also continuing to work part time at the Office of the Health and Disability Commissioner, said he was honoured to win the prize.
“The Global Environmental Law paper was tremendous because it dealt with the important issues of balancing development and sustainability in an international context,” he says.
We selected the top mark in the Global Environmental Law paper to win the prize, to reflect that we are one planet and one people.
“We selected the top mark in the Global Environmental Law paper to win the prize, to reflect that we are one planet and one people,” muses Greg, acknowledging his links with the Stephanian family across one ocean and one continent.
Julie Stephanian, whose husband Tom passed away in 2011, congratulated Oliver on behalf of the family.
“I know you are going to go on to do bigger and better things and I wish you continued success in everything you do. If you ever come to our part of the world, please look us up.”
Miranda Playfair | Media adviser