Often I’ve heard school board members say that the most satisfying aspect of the position is handing out diplomas at the high school or eighth grade graduation. I concur. In my experience as a district superintendent, I found tremendous enjoyment by participating in commencement exercises. They are a rite of passage for our students and a source of pride for parents, teachers and the school community at large.
On May 22, I had the honor of serving as commencement speaker during the graduation ceremony for the Essex County College Class of 2013. The event had special meaning to me because I previously served on the college’s Board of Trustees. During that period, I became impressed with the students’ dedication and their belief in education and how it could translate to career and family success. Many of the college’s students were financially challenged, often working two jobs and raising families. Yet, because of their aspirations and desire to succeed, they earned their degrees.
Let me share with you some of the thoughts I conveyed in my commencement remarks. Although I was speaking to a community college audience, I am certain that many of these sentiments will apply to our high school graduates when they receive their diplomas later this month.
“This morning, I want to talk to you about dreams…and how they keep us focused on the goals we set for ourselves.
“Virtually everyone here today—no matter where you live or were born—met challenges on the journey to graduation. Maybe you worked two jobs while going to school. Maybe you are the first in your family to earn a college degree. Maybe you dealt with medical issues affecting yourself or a loved one. Nonetheless, you succeeded because of your principles, commitment and dreams.
“…When I was a trustee here at Essex County College, I knew a student who had no family support. College staff discovered him living 20 yards from the railroad tracks—in an abandoned, burned-out 1964 Chevy. It was a miracle that this student even survived. Yet, in spite of the disadvantages—and obstacles that few could even imagine—he turned out to be among the highest ranked students in his graduating class. His dreams fueled his success.
“Several years ago, a survey by the Pew Research Center found that the number-one goal among young adults was to become rich, followed by becoming famous. Although there is nothing wrong with wanting to be rich and famous, I never saw that as the prime motivation of students at Essex County.
“Here at Essex County College, we see students who once struggled with the English language volunteer as tutors of new students who are English-language learners. We see students whose families are anything but wealthy; yet, they spend their limited time raising money for cancer research, leukemia and heart disease.
“This college has always been a place where miracles happen. It will continue to be so.”
Throughout our state, board members have seen similar miracles in their own schools and communities. Of that I am certain. Graduation season gives us the opportunity to focus on the success of our students. It also gives me an opportunity to thank you for the contributions you make to public education as a local school board member.
These are my Reflections. I look forward to hearing yours. Contact me at [email protected].