As a high school administrator, few things are more rewarding than seeing your seniors walk toward you in their caps and gowns and being able to hand them their diplomas. It is a privilege I often feel I don’t deserve because this annual ritual represents the culmination of so much work by so many other people. While the students themselves are the real stars; our teachers, principal, dean, counselors, campus ministers, Corporate Work Study supervisors and staff, and so many others all played critical supporting roles over the course of our graduates’ last four years to bring them to this brief moment of recognition. They know the students far more intimately than I do, struggling beside them during the tough times, laughing with them during the good, and maintaining complete professionalism through the sublime and ridiculous moments that make up the high school experience.
Shaking hands with each graduate and looking them in the eye creates a rollercoaster of emotions. Some of our students overcame tremendous odds to get to this moment: family crises, losses of parents, intermittent homelessness, hunger, depression, self-doubt, illness… and yet, here they are! It is profoundly moving. Many are the first to graduate high school and nearly all are the first generation of their families to go to college. How can you not smile? For some it is a monumental feat; for others it is the culminating reward of daily little decisions to come to school and do their homework; and for a select few it is a downright, honest-to-goodness, absolute miracle!
“My Gosh, wasn’t she a freshman just yesterday?” “Boy, oh boy, there sure were moments I thought he would never buckle down and make it to this day.” “Remember them as quiet, scared 9th graders and now, here they are as confident, gritty adults?” “Amazing.” This is the running dialogue I have with myself as the students walk and the cameras flash.
I wish I could share this with everyone. When I look in their eyes, I see dreams starting to come true – not only their dreams but also the dreams of their parents and grandparents. When I shake their hands, I feel the grip of young adults forming a sense of purpose for their lives. When they take their diplomas, I see their eyes immediately turn to family in the audience and in their smiles and waves is the acknowledgement that they didn’t get here alone. Theirs is a collective success of familial love, hard work, and determination. It is a success that doesn’t end here.
It is called a commencement ceremony for good reason. “Commencement” means the beginning of something, not the end. For the graduates, it’s onward to the next phase of their lives with 98% of the Class of 2017 accepted to bachelor’s programs and the majority having received packages sufficient to matriculate in the fall. This is our largest graduating class ever. While North Chicago High School down the street enrolls 870 students compared to our 403, our graduating class this year outnumbered theirs 93 to 78. We have our first graduate going to Washington University this year, our second to go to Emory. 19 of our seniors were accepted to Marquette, 9 are going to Loyola University Chicago (including those who will attend the new Arrupe College program); only two will go to College of Lake County.
For the school’s faculty and staff, there is barely time to catch our collective breath before it all begins again. The next class of incoming freshmen will be at CRSM this week for Corporate Work Study orientation and assessments. Summer school begins the week after that. In fact, there is just one full week this summer without students on campus. At CRSM, we don’t necessarily end and begin school years as much as we just keep going!
We still need more jobs for our Corporate Work Study Program for the coming school year; we continue to raise money for our new campus that will open but be far from complete next spring; we keep trying to stay in touch with our alumni who have graduated college, finding many working full-time at some of our CWSP job partners and living back in the community.
Commencement is the beginning of something. At CRSM, it is the beginning of leveling the educational playing field for students from low-income communities, the beginning of economic mobility for our families, the beginning of a new generation of young people becoming “persons for others” and making the world a better place, the beginning of dreams becoming reality, the beginning of hope where hope has been absent for far too long, the beginning of truly witnessing God working in our world. May it be the beginning of something that just keeps on going!