Guest commentary: Reflections after a year in Naples for Ave Maria law school

We’ve all heard the expression “time flies” — and it does — but I have developed a new appreciation of this looking back on the nine months that have passed since Ave Maria School of Law held its first class at our Naples campus within the Vineyards community. It seems like just yesterday my colleagues and I were in Ann Arbor, Mich., preparing to undertake something that had never been done before — moving a fully accredited law school from one part of the country to another.

As Ave Maria School of Law concludes this historic first year, with our commencement ceremonies at the Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts, with keynote speaker Gov. Jeb Bush, this is the right time to reflect on some of the milestones that have marked the past several months.

When the law school first arrived in Naples, one of the commitments I made to community leaders was that Ave Maria would be an important asset in the life of the region. Along with bringing hundreds of new taxpayers, volunteers and commercial patrons to the community, we sought to enrich the cultural life of Naples with world-class events. The law school has hosted events with Reagan administration adviser and current Knights of Columbus Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, former President George W. Bush’s chief of staff Andy Card, Reagan administration Attorney General Edwin Meese III, Fox News Channel creator Roger Ailes and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

Gov. Bush’s appearance at our commencement is the capstone of a nine-month period in which we have offered these and many other cultural opportunities to the people of Naples — and almost all of them have been free of charge to the community and open to the public.

Another commitment we made upon our arrival at the Vineyards campus was to enrich the life of the legal community here in Southwest Florida. Among the most validating compliments I have received is that our students, who can be found clerking and interning at many of the region’s top law firms, government legal offices and nonprofit organizations, consistently exceed expectations and bring great value to their employers. Many of our graduates are planning on building their lives here in Southwest Florida, having enjoyed a taste of life here as law students.

This is an important development for this community compared to just one year ago. Before, with no law school located within a reasonable commute, there were few, if any, law students to be found — especially during the academic year. Today, with Ave Maria School of Law in the Vineyards, legal practitioners have immediate access to first-rate support from Ave Maria law students. These young people are eager to apply what they are learning in the classroom in real-life settings and are already contributing to the legal profession through their service.

I am equally pleased to share that our students are donating hundreds of hours of time to nonprofit organizations through community service, putting our law school’s mission into action and lifting up the poor all over Southwest Florida. I cannot express enough how proud I am of their efforts.

The natural extension of looking back is to begin to look forward, and I do so with even greater excitement. In the coming years, the law school will continue to grow in size and national reputation. Our positive impact on the area’s legal profession and service sector will expand. Our program of cultural events will again attract exciting nationally recognized leaders. We will remain focused on fulfillment of our law school’s mission — a mission that reflects the values of the people of Southwest Florida and will continue to bring honor to this region.

Milhizer joined the law school in 2001 as a faculty member after more than 20 years of service in the U.S. Army JAG Corps; he was named the law school’s chief executive in January. He and his wife, Dianna, live in Ave Maria.

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