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. Continue reading