Commencement Recap: Baccalaureate Address

By Wendy Kopp


Rhodes College Baccalaureate
May 11, 2007

Good afternoon. Congratulations to those of you who have invested so much of yourselves in the learning and hard work necessary to attain the degree you will receive tomorrow. And, to your parents, who invested so much as well in the way of love and patience and in some cases money and are no doubt so deservedly proud of what you have accomplished.

A special salute to the six of you who are heading to Teach For America this summer. And to President Troutt and the Rhodes Administration and faculty, for instilling such an ethic of service on this campus that so many of your seniors apply to engage themselves in our cause and in other efforts to address the disparities and challenges that face our society. Your campus has from my experience one of the most powerful ethos of giving back and making our nation and world better, which is quite a gift to the world and to all those who have been lucky enough to be part of this community.

It is quite an honor to have the opportunity to share some thoughts for reflection as you graduates head out into the world. I want to use my time to speak with you about the power of inexperience, the possibility of change, and the importance of finding your passion.

First, the power of inexperience. Over time, I have become more and more convinced that recent graduates have an asset which makes you uniquely qualified to make a real difference in the world, especially in the face of entrenched challenges that others have given up on. There’s something about the fresh perspective and limitless energy of young people that enables you to solve problems that many more experienced people have given up on.

Thinking back to my own senior year in college, I wasn’t intending to start something like Teach For America—or to start anything at all for that matter. As a college senior I was applying to two-year corporate training programs, seeking out political internships, and generally struggling in my search for something I really wanted to do. My generation was dubbed the “Me Generation” because people thought all we wanted to do was focus on ourselves and make a lot of money. But that didn’t strike me as right. I felt as if thousands of us talented, driven graduating seniors were searching for a way to make a social impact but simply couldn’t find the opportunity to do so.

During my senior fall, I helped organize a conference about education reform, where one of the topics was the shortage of qualified teachers in urban and rural communities. It was at that conference that I thought of an idea: Why doesn’t our country have a national teacher corps that recruits us to teach in low-income communities the same way we’re being recruited to work on Wall Street?

From that moment, I was possessed by this idea—I thought it would make a huge difference in kids’ lives, and that ultimately it could change the consciousness of our country, by influencing the thinking and career paths of a generation of leaders. I did the obvious thing at the time—which was to write a long and passionate letter to the President of the United States suggesting he start this corps. That didn’t get very far—I received a job rejection letter in response—and so in my undergraduate senior thesis I declared that I would try to create such a corps myself, as a non-profit organization. When my thesis adviser looked at my budget, which showed that to recruit and train 500 new teachers into this corps during the first year would cost two and a half million dollars, he asked me if I knew how hard it was to raise $2,500, let alone two and a half million dollars. Aided by my inexperience, I was unfazed by his question. When school district officials and potential funders laughed at the notion that the Me Generation would jump at the chance to teach in urban and rural communities, their concerns too went unheard.

That year 2,500 graduating seniors competed to enter Teach For America in response to a grassroots recruitment campaign—flyers under doors since there was no email back then! And one year after I graduated, with two and a half million dollars in hand from the corporate and foundation community, I was looking out on an auditorium full of 489 recent college graduates who had joined Teach For America’s first corps.

As the momentum around our efforts has grown—to the point where this year, despite the strongest job market in 5 years, 18,000 graduating seniors applied to Teach For America—people have asked me whether I envisioned this—whether I ever dreamed we would reach this point. The thing is, you all, I did envision it—I thought we’d reach this point in year two or three! What I didn’t envision was how long it would take.

My very greatest asset in reaching this point was that I simply did not understand what was impossible. I would soon learn the value of experience, but Teach For America would not exist today were it not for my naivete.

I see this same phenomenon every day as I watch 23-year-olds walking into classrooms and setting goals for themselves and their students that most believe to be entirely unrealistic. The conventional wisdom is that there is only so much schools can do to overcome the challenges of poverty and the lack of student motivation and parental involvement that is perceived to come with it. But then there are individuals like Brooke Molpus, who graduated from Rhodes College three years ago.

When Brooke started teaching language arts to her eighth graders in Houston, to students for whom English was not the primary language spoken in their homes, she discovered that they had an average fifth-grade reading level; some of her students were at the second-grade skills level.

But she naively set out to change that—to move her students forward and help them catch up. She set a goal that by the end of the year, her students would make two years of progress in a year’s time, and she invested her students in that goal—in working harder than they had ever worked to get there. She focused on developing strong lessons that met them where they were and accelerated her instruction from there. She built an extensive library to foster their love of reading. Seeking to help change their academic trajectory, she maximized every minute she had during the school day. And then kept her kids after school, ensured they did lots of homework, and worked with them on Saturdays. When she encountered obstacles, she sought help—from veteran educators and from Teach For America.

At the end of the year, Brooke’s students had moved two years forward in a year’s time. Some of her students moved four years in a year’s time. Her ambition to change the academic trajectory of her students, which many more experienced people might have thought crazy, had unleashed enormous amounts of energy and produced significant academic gains that have the potential to literally change the lives of her students.

The world needs your inexperience. It needs you before you accept the status quo, before you are plagued by the knowledge of what is impossible. I hope you will put it to good use. Ask your naïve questions.

The second thing I want to talk about today is the possibility of change. This is, I believe, the most salient lesson of my 18 years in this.

I was struck to hear Muhammad Yunus’ message when he received the Nobel Peace Prize this year for his work pioneering and spreading the idea of microcredit—giving loans to poor people without any financial security—to address poverty. His message, after more than three decades in using this approach to address poverty, was that he firmly believes we can create a poverty-free world. “In a poverty-free world, the only place you would be able to see poverty is in the poverty museums,” he said. “Poverty in the world is an artificial creation; it does not belong to human civilization. We can change it."

The reason his message struck me so powerfully is that it’s so consistent with what I’ve seen firsthand about educational inequity. We can solve it.

Educational inequity is a massive and daunting problem. Thirteen million children live below the poverty line in our nation today. By the time they are in fourth grade, they are three grade levels behind their peers in privileged communities. Only half will graduate from high school by the time they are 18, and those who do will have an eighth grade skill level. Fewer than 10% will graduate from college.

When I started out in this, I was driven by idealism—by a belief that things should be different—that we should be a nation in which all children, regardless of where they are born, have the opportunity to attain an excellent education. Yet what has kept me and my colleagues in this work is not only the magnitude of the problem and the consequences for individuals, communities and our country and society, but rather what we have learned about its solvability.

Aaron Brenner graduated from this fine institution, Rhodes College, in 1995 and began teaching in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. He taught students who lived in the colonias, makeshift neighborhoods of wood, plastic, and even dirt floors, some without running water. Few of his students spoke English. He, like Brooke, attained incredible success with his students, and then started a program to serve many more children throughout the Valley. Aaron’s experience in the Valley reinforced his impression that all students have the potential to learn and achieve at high levels—if they’re given the opportunities they deserve—and so after several years of teaching students and going far above and beyond to meet their needs, he moved to Houston where he could start a school that would serve kids well starting at the age of 3 or 4. His thought was that by starting this early, he could put children growing up in poverty on a truly level playing field.

The day I visited Aaron’s school this past year was one of the most inspiring of my many years in this. He serves 350 students, with a plan to serve 1,200 students in his school as he adds a grade level each year. 96% of his students receive free/reduced lunch and 98% are Latino/Hispanic and African-American.

Now, I have young kids—who are 3, 5 and 7 and attend a New York City Montessori pre-school I thought was pretty great. But it doesn’t come close to what I saw in Houston. I can’t imagine what a gift it would be to be able to send my kid to a school that operates with the love and expectations and values that Aaron’s school operates with.

On the day I visited, I watched kindergartners writing full-page essays about a painting they had seen. You all are probably not as in touch with kindergartners as I am, but let me assure you that this is extraordinary achievement. His pre-schoolers are learning in both English and Spanish. They know more geography than my second grader. By the time they leave kindergarten, they are reading on average on the second grade level. And, each day, the faculty work to instill five core values—Seek, Honor, Imagine, Never Give Up, and Every Day.

Aaron Brenner is turning educational inequity on its head. He is proving that when given the opportunities they deserve, students growing up in poverty can excel on an absolute scale.

Most Americans view educational inequity as an intractable problem. Every year, the Gallup organization surveys the public, asking why we have low educational outcomes in low-income communities. Out of twenty options, the public responds ‘lack of student motivation,’ ‘lack of parental involvement,’ and ‘home-life issues.’ In other words, most Americans believe this is an entrenched societal problem rather than a problem that our schools can change. Of course, if you ask Aaron Brenner why we have this problem, his answers will be very different. And in fact, when we ask Teach For America corps members the same question Gallup asked, with the same twenty options, their answers are ‘teacher quality,’ ‘principal quality,’ and expectations of kids at the school level. Our corps members, after two years of working in communities and schools with kids and families, believe that this problem is within our control to solve.

Realizing this—that change is possible, that not only should the world be different, but it could be—is what has fueled my sense of responsibility and that of my colleagues in this work. For if educational equity, or poverty, is solvable, it is the responsibility of those of us who have been given so much to do everything in our power to realize that change.

My third thought, with which I will leave you, is about the importance of searching until you find your passion—a purpose greater than yourself, in pursuit of which you will be brave enough to ask your naïve questions, to pick yourself up from the failures and persevere until you succeed.

I feel incredibly fortunate to have found my passion so early in my search—to have found my way, by chance, to something in which over time I have come to believe only more strongly. For me, it was a deep belief in this cause—a cause so much greater than myself—that enabled me to take the sometimes terrifying leaps outside of my comfort zone during the years after I graduated and that then, even as things got much tougher, have left me feeling no option but to keep at it. Which is important, because as important as inexperience is, it turns out that experience is also invaluable—that sticking with challenges and embracing steep learning curves generates very important insights.

When I asked Brooke why she stepped out into the unknown and challenged expectations about what students in her community could accomplish, and pushed her kids harder than she might naturally have felt it was ‘nice’ to do, she said she cared so much about them that she just had to. When I asked Aaron why he persevered through all the challenges—why he was willing to make $20,000 a year teaching and running his program in the Rio Grande Valley, or why he still works so very hard managing the intense demands of running one of the most successful schools in the country, even now that he is also balancing his devotion to his two babies and his wife, he talks about the rewards of doing something truly meaningful. “If I had pursued salary I would have missed out on being part of something I believe in,” he said. “It’s okay because I’m doing the most important thing to me.”

It is exhausting to have true passions, but it is hard to imagine anything more fulfilling. My very deepest hope for you is that you find your way to a pursuit that is so important to you that you will approach it with perfectionist zeal and gain the personal strength and insight and the deep sense of exhaustion and satisfaction that comes from that. Good luck.  

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