Inspired By Family: Spring ’23 Valedictorian Samuel Ciulla

A headshot of a Stetson Law alumnus superimposed against a photo of Stetson Law's tower.
Stetson Law Spring 2023 Valedictorian Samuel Ciulla

When Santo “Sandy” Ciulla brought his family to Florida in the 1970s, he had little more than ten dollars in his pocket and the van that brought them to the Sunshine State.

Through hard work and perseverance, he built a loving, supportive environment that encouraged his family to thrive. Though he passed away in 2015, his grandson, Samuel Ciulla, who graduated from Stetson Law in May of 2023, said his grandfather’s legacy inspires him toward great achievement – including becoming valedictorian of his law school class.

It’s an honor he doesn’t take lightly.

“Getting the news that I was class valedictorian brought perspective to all the hard work I have put in over the past three years,” said Ciulla between intensive sessions preparing for the Florida Bar examination. “Law school was an extraordinary time in so many different ways, and to have not only graduated, but to have graduated as valedictorian, is a feat that I am very proud of.”

Setting goals – and surpassing them

Ciulla said he had two big objectives as a 1L: getting good enough grades to help him secure employment prior to graduation and being part of the Stetson Law Review.

After doing better than he had expected on his first round of exams and being invited to join Stetson Law Review, he realized he had a shot at a third goal: becoming class valedictorian. To Ciulla, it was an aspiration worth pursuing even if he didn’t quite make it.

“I looked at this goal as an internal competition with myself to always work my hardest, and I knew if I did that, I would be rewarded in some way,” he said.

In the end, he believes it was “passion and perspective” that gave him an edge.

“Once I figured out how to take a law school exam, I tried to frame all my learning during the semester into the question, “How does this fit into an exam?” Through this lens, I was able to take each topic I learned in each class and fit it into the bigger puzzle piece of an exam, which fit into a bigger puzzle piece of getting good grades, which fit into a good job, good career, and so on,” Ciulla said. “This perspective helped motivate me on the tough days where I was tired – each little point learned in each class was a small piece leading me onto the rest of my life and my dream of becoming an attorney.”

He made the Dean’s List four times, received the highest grade in ten classes, was a runner-up in the Spring 2021 Freeborn & Peters First-Year Appellate Advocacy Competition, and won Outstanding Editor (Fall 2022) and the Leadership Award (Spring 2023) for his work on the Stetson Law Review, on which he ultimately served as Executive Editor. His work was also recently published in the Stetson Law Review.

His diligence, kindness, and contributions to the Stetson Law community stood out to those around him. “Samuel represented everything one could ask for in a law student,” said Law Professor Andrew Appleby, who was a mentor to Ciulla. “He consistently demonstrated intellectual curiosity and always contributed valuable insights to class discussions. He is also a genuinely nice person and is a pleasure to be around.”

The start of a promising career

As he looks beyond the bar exam – and some time spent traveling – Ciulla will join Gunster in the firm’s real estate practice group. He’ll be based out of their office in Tampa, the city where he grew up and where he always dreamed of launching his legal career.

It’s why Stetson Law was the only law school he wanted to attend.

“Tampa has always been home and it will continue to be my home for the foreseeable future, and if I wanted to be a Tampa lawyer, I knew that went hand-in-hand with being a Stetson lawyer,” Ciulla said. “I did not want to go out of state for law school and wait until after graduation to start setting roots and making connections in my community. I wanted to start this journey during law school, and what better place to get started than at Florida’s first law school.”

The role of family

In addition to his grandfather, Ciulla believes his success so far would not have been possible without the support and inspiration of his father James, his mother Erin, and his brother Santo.

He also credits his cousin, Michael Caldarelli, who tragically passed away in 2012 after a long battle with cystic fibrosis, for inspiring him to persevere, even on the worst days, and to see the good in everything.

“I am so honored to become the first lawyer – and valedictorian – in our family, and I hope it makes them proud,” Ciulla said.