Remarks for Countdown to College Graduation, 2015

C2C 2015 Graduation Remarks, July 17, 2015

This summer, I taught college writing to rising high school seniors who have spent the past 4 years as part of the Countdown to College (C2C) program at Saint Mary’s University in Winona, MN. The program aims to make students college read, understanding that access alone is not enough to guarantee persistence. For the program’s graduation ceremony, Dr. Jane Anderson, program director, asked me to select a student essay to be read and to introduce the student. The following text is that introduction. In it, I also called on other students to read excerpts from their essays. In particular, I wanted to address concerns (complaints, unfounded fears?) that these students get a “free ride” through college without having to put any skin in the game. For the C2C students, drawn from underrepresented groups in Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Racine, Tucson, and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, they are the “skin” in the game of American capitalism. An excerpt from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me grapples with that same truth:

You must struggle to truly remember this past in all its nuance, error, and humanity. You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were no bricks in our road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. (70).

The C2C students are not getting anything “free,” and the access that Saint Mary’s University’s C2C and First Generation Initiative provide are a start to returning these students and their families back to the realm of people from the status of fuel. The text below incorporates, with permission, passages from students’ essays, but the final essay, which was read, is omitted. Student last names have also been omitted.

Good afternoon. I am Dr. Jeffrey Gross, and I was honored to have the opportunity to visit from Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tennessee, this year to teach college writing to these graduating C2C students. The visions of Mary Ann and Jack Remick and Dr. Jane Anderson have created a life-changing program at Saint Mary’s University; the model here is one that should be followed by every university–Lasallian, Catholic, private, or public–with a stated commitment to social justice. Today, I am privileged to have the opportunity to introduce a student who will read her essay from the writing class as our commencement address, but first I want you to hear excerpts from some of the other emerging voices and leaders in this room. In our class, we discussed the importance of writing as a means to inform, to educate, to move to action, and even to open the hearts of its audience. For their final project, students were asked to describe and analyze a place that was important in their development into the persons they are today. Themes of family, community, service, faith, and education emerged as recurring topics. Considering the ways these students love their families and each other, these themes are not surprising. All college students could stand to learn from these C2C graduates, who not only work hard individually but who look after each other to help each member of the group succeed. The students graduating from this program today are carrying the torch of Lasallian education forward.

Like many students, Ernie S. recounts the sacrifices his parents have made so that his life–and the lives of his siblings–can be better than theirs. Ernie’s essay offers a thoughtful description of the work that each of his parents do, day in and day out, to make their dreams for their children possible. In one paragraph, He focuses on his father’s hands, worn out from constant 12-hour shifts of grueling labor. Here, today, I want you to hear Ernie’s description of his mother. [Ernie reads]

[My mother] would work regardless of whether she was sick or feeling very weak not thinking twice about how she felt but how her children felt. She would wake up and get her work clothes, make breakfast before leaving without having even tasted the delectable food she had made. Coming home she would continue working but there was a day where she came in with an arm wrapped up. The bandage was on her right forearm pulled in tightly like a tourniquet on a soldier’s wound. After so much work, my mother’s muscles began to weaken, she had nearly torn the cohesiveness of her arm. The next day I was wondering how she was, so right before driving off to school I went to check up on her; she was gone. Leaving for school, all I thought about was all the things my mom did for me and the injury she was facing while still working for her children. Returning from work she looked more exhausted than ever, her body posture describing exactly how she felt. Low shoulders, baggy eyes, and a facial expression only a sleep deprived person would make, but she would continue working. The fact that she can not attend the C2C graduation because she needs to work reminds me of what she would do just to see me succeed.

In Ernie’s essay, we can see how love itself is a powerful currency, a driving force where his parents literally sacrifice their bodies–their skin and their well-being–to make his life easier and open doors to education. Ben C., too, reflects on the meaning of education for someone who, like him, has never had all the material comforts in the world but who has benefited from the investments of parental sacrifice and love. [Ben reads]

Growing up I was lucky enough to have parents who supported me and sacrificed themselves so I could have the opportunity that they were never given. Yet despite their best efforts, I was never able to have everything that all the other children my age had. Everywhere I went people judged me based on my race and my socioeconomic status, they never took the time to understand me or even look past the surface into who I really was. I was only ever able to be equal in one category: academics. Perhaps this was the reason I loved school, because in school I could be just like everyone else.

For Ben, this commitment to education–to knowledge as a form of currency and social means–drives him to always do better. Gustavo M. reflects on the importance of this place, a place where his family has allowed him to go for two weeks for each of the last four years. For families, these eight weeks mean lost help around the home and, in many cases, lost income, but this room today shows the pride everyone takes in the success and dreams of these students. [Gustavo reads]

If there is anything I am concerned about, it is just the idea that this program could ever come to an end.  Perhaps something like this isn’t meant to be forever, but what it has been able to accomplish is something that cannot be overlooked easily.  For what remains, I hope that other first generation students are able to be inspired to want to keep bettering themselves and helping others around them realize how much they are truly capable of.  That is what makes C2C so special.  For it not only allows us to prove ourselves as students but as good human beings.  As one of my favorite songs says, “We are the kids that you never can kill, you say that we won’t, but you know that we will, we will keep on.”

The spirit in these students will “keep on.” None of us should ever question their abilities or their drive. I think I can speak for all of the C2C faculty in saying that teaching these students also teaches us. We learn from them. We are inspired by them. We look forward to a world where they are the engaged members of society actively involved in bringing about a more just world.

Our main speaker today will be Carla G., who will share her essay, titled, “Same Neighborhood, Same Street, Same House.” Carla’s work already would stand out in any college classroom. Through offering vivid descriptions and conveying her deep feelings about family and home, Carla reveals the shared hopes of a family, the drive to succeed, and the value of education as an opportunity not only to improve her life but the lives of her entire family. Carla makes you feel her essay, and we can all learn from her. With no further introduction, I present to you Carla G..

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