There’s something special about this time of year throughout the district. There’s anticipation in the eyes of our scholars (and staff!) for a well-earned summer vacation. There’s the buzz and hustle of finishing projects, preparing for exams, and making the most of the last days in the classroom. And then there’s the excitement of graduation — the preparation for our seniors to launch. 

I remember being in the shoes of our graduating seniors and it doesn’t seem like it was that long ago. The photo at the top of this message takes me right back to those feelings. I recall the nerves and anxiety around preparing for college and getting ready to leave home.

This week I’ll have the honor of sharing a few words for our graduates as they prepare for what’s next. Finding the right words for the graduation stage is a task I take seriously.

I won’t give away my full speech, but I’ll share the words I hope resonate with the Class of 2023.

“Act with courage.”

I say those words not just because I want our seniors to have great lives but because our world so desperately needs courage.

We need leaders who are willing to step away from the status quo. We need community members willing to try something new. We need movers and shakers who care enough to push the envelope of possibilities and move our world to a greater reality.

I’ve seen that courage on display as I’ve watched the Class of 2023 travel unchartered terrain to make their way to this graduation stage.

You’ve advocated for social justice. It’s been a tumultuous time in our country that has brought about a moment of reckoning unlike any in modern history. The “Me Too” movement highlighted the injustices and abuses women have endured for far too long. The mistreatment of people of color and inequities in our systems took on heightened levels of awareness and a unified outcry for change was launched. Your voices were a part of those movements. That takes courage.

You navigated a global pandemic. Right in the middle of your high school career you worked through a pandemic that would forever change our world. Classes were suddenly cancelled, wearing masks became the norm, and you continued on. Some of you battled COVID yourselves, watched loved ones suffer, and perhaps even lost someone you love. You adapted your learning style, you embraced remote learning, and you persevered to get to this day. That takes courage.

You’ve advocated for mental health awareness. I’ve watched in awe as you’ve come to recognize the importance of your mental well-being. You’ve recognized that you’re more than a grade point average or academic record. You’ve realized that success can’t happen if you’re not healthy and that includes physical, social, and emotional health. You’ve been brave enough to push adults to find creative new ways to make sure your mental health needs are met. That takes courage.

It is my hope that your courage only increases as you enter our higher education institutions, trade schools, military forces, or the work force. Your voice and actions have the power to impact change and shape our world for a better tomorrow. 

Class of 2023, you have left an indelible mark on the Grand Rapids Public Schools, and I can’t wait to see the ways in which you make your mark on our world.

Act with courage. We’re counting on you.