This afternoon I’ll be one of 13 judges selecting Montgomery College’s 2010-2011 Valedictorian. The judges are comprised of faculty, staff, students, and trustees, who will gather to listen to 16 students (each with a 4.0 GPA) deliver 2-3 minute speeches. The chosen student will deliver his or her remarks at Commencement on May 20th. As the email announcement reads, “This is an exciting annual spring event for us.” For me, it is a reminder at how fast times flies. I can’t believe it’s this time of year already! This is my first time judging this particular competition — I’ve served regularly as a judge for MC’s annual Poetry Slam — and the purpose of the competition causes me to reflect on students I have worked with over the years and to consider ways valedictorians can inspire students throughout rather than at the end of the year.
Commencement makes me think of my best students. On Monday night, Greg Newman wrote to me to tell me he will be graduating in May from Columbia University. It feels like just last semester he was sitting in my creative writing class but the reality is he left MC two years ago. Last year, I helped Nicolas Sere write three speeches for his commencement competitions at the University of Maryland — he majored in Business, Economics, and Finance — and the year before that, I got news from Fatimah Shakolahi that she had graduated from Notre Dame and would be going to graduate school for a Masters degree in English. Another student, Alan Xu, is already a teacher, standing in front of a room conducting his own class! Two thoughts come to mind: first, these students are making valuable decisions and real differences with their lives, and second, I’m getting old. How is it possible that students I had in Freshman composition five years ago are already in graduate school?
This year, the students who will be competing for the honor of MC Valedictorian were asked to prepare a speech on a specific topic: “How will being a Montgomery College graduate impact your life?” The question differs from a transfer approach, and focuses on completing an Associates degree before attending a four-year university. We know though that many of our students do transfer instead of graduate, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I have heard from several students who have transferred to area schools that it is easy to spot MC students on their new campuses: they’re the ones sitting in groups studying. They have formed strong study habits and they have formed a sense of community, fruitful seeds MC has planted in them.
We usually see the effects MC has on our students only after they leave, when we can compare and contrast their performance against a non-MC setting. When you’re on campus, you see students students studying, hanging out in groups, waiting for classes in the hallway, and succeeding or failing in their course work; these are the norms of any school. It isn’t easy to see and celebrate all the differences the students are making in each other’s lives when it’s going on in front of you, but it is often easy to spot failure, frustration, and fatigue. I wonder if we could have more succeeding than failing though. I wonder if we can make the 4.0 GPA the mean for the entire student body. I propose a culture that insists all our students should be competing for the valedictorian honor. Is this idealist thinking?
This has been a hard week. The last few weeks of the semester usually are. The students and the professors are tired. The emotions are high and the energy is low. On Monday a student “kirked out” on me over his research paper. On Tuesday, my interns were all sick and couldn’t come to work. Today I’m returning late papers of students who barely managed to make the late submission deadline. This afternoon the 16 best and brightest students of MC will re-affirm each professor’s role and commitment to teaching. They will remind us that there are excellent students out there who excel at time management, project completion, and not only meet minimum requirements but set and surpass high standards. This is why they’re now competing with one another, the best facing off with the best. These students have had years of academic grooming as exemplified by their achievements. Similarly, my former students’ success stories prove that hard work is worth it. Instead of waiting until the end of the year to choose our valedictorian, though, we should think of new ways to identify all valedictorians earlier, so that throughout the year they can give their motivational and inspirational speeches to students that really need to hear them rather than to students who already know the sweet taste of success.