The NEA Aspiring Educators program and its leaders recently held a Zoom celebration to honor and welcome college graduates who are entering the education profession, and it was a star-studded event, with special guests Erin Gruwell, a teacher, an education activist, and the founder and original teacher of the Freedom Writers Foundation; Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.); and U.S. Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.).
While it may not be the send-off anyone anticipated, under the backdrop of a global pandemic, campuses across the country have held virtual or socially distant events. Other campuses have postponed graduation ceremonies until later in the summer to honor the class of 2020.
It’s been bittersweet for the millions of U.S. college students who were expecting to walk the stage.
“Not being able to celebrate this achievement at a physical ceremony is devastating,” says Heather Harris, a graduate of Rutgers University in New Jersey, who majored in African studies. “I am a first generation student who lost my dad during my college journey. My graduation day was going to be a triumphant celebration for my family, and although the accomplishment remains the same , the absence of a ceremony is a hard reality to face.”
For others, NEA’s virtual graduation ceremony was their only event. Mary Alcala posted in the chat box, “I wouldn't have had a graduation without this since I attended Grand Canyon University online for my [master’s degree] in special education from Kansas. This is amazing!! Thank you so much!”
Among the many things the coronavirus pandemic has showed is that aspiring educators, just like the millions of their soon-to-be colleagues, are resilient and can quickly adapt to change.
Harris and her family have planned a social distancing party, “complete with take-out dinner from our favorite restaurant and a Zoom call with our friends and family! I'm going to dress in my full graduate regalia and enjoy!”
Inspiration Needed During Difficult Times
Between the uncertainty of the coronavirus and the continuous stream of racist attacks on black Americans, from the murders of Ahmaud Aubery, at the hands of two white men with ties to the local police department, and George Floyd, at the hands of Minneapolis police to the attacks that go un-televised, aspiring educators were in need of some inspiration.
Heather Harris shared prior to the event that “tonight, I'm hoping to hear positive messages of inspiration and guidance. In the midst of this pandemic, the ongoing fight for black lives in this country, and the uncertainty of the future, hope seems to be fleeting. It's challenging to face as a brand new college graduate and aspiring educator. I am looking forward to hearing words of affirmation and just taking a moment to celebrate some beauty!”
Jessica Gorman, a graduate of California State University, Chico, who majored in liberal studies and special education, echoed a similar sentiment. “I am honestly just hoping to hear stories of hope and passion tonight. I think us graduates are so appreciative and are just wanting to feel inspired as we step into such an uncertain world.”
NEA’s virtual ceremony did not disappoint.
The event featured the Who’s Who of NEA, including NEA President Lily Eskelsen García, NEA Vice President Becky Pringle, NEA Aspiring Educator Chairperson Rachel Immerman, and dozens more. Virtual commencement speeches offered the class of 2020 advice, inspiration, and hope.
“My advice to you is hurry, we need you. We need you in our classrooms. We need you to humbly serve the most vulnerable among us. We need you to equalize unfair playing fields in classes, communities, one kid at a time,” shared California teacher and original Freedom Writer Erin Gruwell. “I'm so proud of each and every one of your accomplishments--you're graduating and with that knowledge and that enthusiasm I welcome you to this noble profession.”
For U.S. Rep. Katie Porter (California), her words of advice encouraged aspiring educators to recognize that “your diversity and the story that you personally bring to this profession will help you be a better advocate for yourself, your colleagues, and your students as we work to breakdown the systemic barriers in the education system both in our schools and in Congress—your experience is invaluable,” adding that next generation of educators “will change lives and create opportunities for children who never had imagined them. You will open doors for them that never existed before and for that I want to be one of the first to say thank you.”
While acknowledging the pain many Americans nationwide are currently experiencing, Sen. Kamala Harris of California also encouraged the group to “…not let the moment of this crisis dampen your ambitions or your hopes or your dreams. When you set out on your mission, know that your country needs you—that we need you…and remember that you never need someone's permission to lead. Real leaders don't ask anybody if they can lead, they just lead and that's what you've done just by being here today.”
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Capping off the event was NEA President Lily Eskelsen García, who underscored the value of the NEA network.
“We depend on each other,” says Eskelsen García, “[and] that's what I want to leave you with. In this horrible time of isolation, where I'm feeling really alone…I know I'm not alone. I have colleagues who will connect with me…teach me, and reach out to me—and you do, too: three million NEA members.”
She added, “It's not a cliché, you are the future of everything, of everything this country hopes to be, of everything our union hopes to be. You are the future of someone else's child. You should be a little in awe of the power that you're going to have as you begin this incredible journey.”
And it’s this kind of network that has inspired California’s Jessica Gorman, “For a while, it was hard to feel motivated during this time. As time passed, … I felt less alone… and more connected to other cultures and people. This is truly what has kept me going: Remembering we are in this together.”
Visit NEA Aspiring Educators' Facebook page to view the ceremony.