{ Reaching High & Reaching Back }

By now, you may have heard the news. You may have read the press release, caught a flash of an image on Facebook, seen a video. If you were in the Admissions Office on April 21st, you may have even heard a delighted shriek (or two) and been witness to a series of excited office dance parties.

Friends, First Lady Michelle Obama is speaking at the Oberlin College Commencement ceremony this year!!!

I don’t think there are exclamation marks enough to accurately depict how excited I am about this! And it isn’t just that Michelle Obama is speaking at Oberlin — it’s why she’s chosen our college for her address.

As part of her Reach Higher* initiative, the First Lady challenged college communities and institutes of higher education to share the “ways that they are creating college immersion experiences for high school students” (whitehouse.gov). The Near-Peer Mentoring Challenge invited student filmmakers to highlight the ways that students motivate each other to “make higher education a reality.”

The Oberlin submission highlights the relationship between a current Oberlin College student and an Oberlin High School student. Through the Ninde Scholars Program, college students provide academic and college-access services to 7th-12th graders in the Oberlin public school system. Many of these students will be the first in their families to attend and graduate from college.



Directed by Patrick Gilfether ‘15, music by Kirk Pearson ‘17, and produced by Zach Christy


My favorite part of the short video is when Morgan, an Oberlin high school student, describes the Ninde Scholars Program and the impact of having a mentor (Amethyst) close to her in age and experience:

“So let’s say there’s a house and I live in the house, and I forgot the key to my house. And I’m like, I just got home from work at like 9 o’clock. Ninde is my little brother who opens the door for me. Before Amethyst, I was like, “Oooh, college?” And now, with Amethyst, I’m like, “Oh my god, I am so ready for college!” I’ve been looking at college since the middle of my junior year; that’s how on it she’s been. And because of that, I think that I am so ready.”


Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was invited to Oberlin to present a Commencement address and receive the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. His address, entitled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” charged the graduates of Oberlin to develop global perspectives; to fight to end racial injustice; to stand against violence, hatred, and war; and to encourage and build brotherhood across the world.

In the address, Dr. King said:

“…All mankind is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be - this is the interrelated structure of reality.”

This, to me, is the heart of the Ninde Scholars Program. It is a chance to “develop a coalition of conscience” and to ensure that students who are excited about college, unsure about college, and/or unaware of college have access to pertinent information. More importantly, they have mentorship, guidance, and friendship.

The power of the near-peer mentoring program is such that when Morgan says of Amethyst that “She just knows,” she doesn’t need to embellish the thought. Amethyst knows the difficulty of balancing a job with family responsibilities and homework and theater tech week and trying to figure out the Common App. She can relate to Morgan, and that is a powerful thing.

“She knows” is also “she knows me.” It’s Dr. King’s “inescapable network of mutuality.”

The power of that — the exact thing that First Lady Michelle Obama is encouraging and highlighting — that’s what makes Commencement this year such a heady, wonderful, exciting event to come.

On May 25th, we will remember the words that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shared with this community in 1965; we will honor the work of the Ninde Scholars Program; we will join First Lady Michelle Obama in applauding the Reach Higher initiative and the successes of near-peer mentoring programs across the country; and we will celebrate the graduation of a class of students who will go on to be world-changers, leaders, and mentors.


* I blogged about the Reach Higher initiative last year, too!


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