Back in late February of 2019, I co-hosted Elon’s first Elon English Language Teaching Symposium on campus. At the event, I delivered a short presentation to our 100 attendees and felt nervous beforehand. 100 people is a large crowd! After the Symposium ended, a professor asked if he could nominate me to speak at graduation for the College of Arts and Sciences and School of Education Ceremony. I was shocked, humbled, and honored. I had just spoken to 100 people, and now I’d be preparing for thousands?! I slept on it, and told him “yes!” shortly after. A few weeks later, I received the news that I had been chosen.
I would like to share the text of my speech with all of you. Thank you to Dr. Jeff Carpenter and Dr. Kim Pyne for being my wonderful speech coaches. Thank you to Dean Ann Bullock, the Dean of the School of Education for supporting me throughout this process!
“Will the World Ever Learn?” Elon student commencement address 2019
Hey y’all! Welcome all to graduation and a big welcome to my fellow graduates. Thank you to the families who have traveled from near and far, and to the professors, friends, and supporters who have encouraged us and cheered us on every step of the way. My name is Courtney Kobos and I am a Texas native, an Elon English and education major, and a future teacher. Like many of you, some pinnacle moments of my Elon experience include traveling, researching, and teaching. And as a teacher, and in classic Elon style, I’m going to ask us to reflect together on our Elon experiences one more time.
Last semester, I began an internship teaching 10th graders at a nearby school. As a class, we read texts about injustice from the Holocaust to Sandy Hook. One was Elie Wiesel’s speech to the United Nations commemorating the Holocaust. The speech concludes with the famous lines: “We must be engaged, we must reject indifference as an option. Indifference always helps the aggressor, never his victims. But will the world ever learn?” During the class activity that followed, a student pulled me aside. Pointing at that final line, she looked at me, concern etched across her face, and whispered the same question Wiesel asks us. “Ms. Kobos, do you think the world will ever learn?” As a teacher, I get asked dozens of questions a day and I can’t say that I’m able to remember them all. However, this unexpected heartfelt question and the student’s worried tone continue to echo in my mind.
In pondering this, I was reminded of a memory from the summer before. I have titled this story, “That time I accidentally signed myself up to run an Ecuadorian 5K.” Let me tell you about my host mom, Maria Jose. Maria Jose is a force to be reckoned with. She selflessly gives her time and love to many in her community, including her kids, her school, and the volunteers who work at the summer camp she founded. Maria Jose also bravely battles two types of cancer and trains for races in the midst of chemo. So, when a colleague asked me if I’d like to go cheer her on during an evening 5k, I gladly agreed. I showed up at her door at 8pm dressed in street clothes, ready to be the loudest “gringa” there. She took one look at me and asked, “What are you wearing? Mihija, you can’t run in that. We’re late, so go get changed into your race clothes!” I panicked. I could not say no to Maria Jose, but running is not my thing–just ask my family here in the crowd. But, I had no choice. I had apparently agreed to run in the race, not just be part of the cheering section. 20 minutes later, we arrived at the trail and approached a group of serious runners decked out in running tights and headlamps. And then, there was me: an outsider wearing skinny jeans, using the flashlight on my phone, and dragging myself up that hill wondering how in the world I ended up there, and trying to swallow my pride when I was the last one to make it to the top. In reflecting on moments like this one, that have pushed me outside of my comfort zone and have forced me to learn and grow — I started to formulate an answer to my student’s question. In order to fully support Maria Jose, I had to run the race alongside her. Standing by and cheering from the sidelines was not enough.
When I returned to Elon, I immediately dove in to another one of the most enriching and uncomfortable periods in my undergraduate career — conducting research. I was awarded the Elon Leadership Prize, which funds students trying to tackle large scale national problems in their communities. My project focused on improving the schooling experience locally for English language learners and building capacity in the education system to better support underserved children. Who was I to take on this broad and nearly unsolvable issue? For a while, I had moments daily where I doubted myself and wondered why I was chosen for this award. But, if I could survive that crazy 5K run up the side of an Ecuadorian mountain, maybe I would accomplish this project the same way — by embracing discomfort and placing myself in the action. Through showing up and doing the work alongside many others, I had the opportunity to see the difference between having knowledge for the sake of knowledge and using knowledge collaboratively to influence local change. Oftentimes, we are told that if we just work together we can change the world. But, I believe that in addition to working together, we also must individually commit, take responsibility, and be daring.
I stand here confidently today, looking out at you, my fellow 2019 graduates. We have now completed our time at Elon. We have taken dozens of classes, met students from across the United States and the world, and have gained knowledge about our future careers and about our passions. I realize now, from my experiences teaching, traveling, and researching, that support from the sidelines is not what the world needs. We must be in the thick of the action and outside of our comfort zones. Just like on that dusty trail in Ecuador, we must put ourselves in the race, even if we are the very last ones to make it to the top, and sometimes even if we didn’t intend on signing up for the race to begin with. We must each choose to fight the tendency to stay on the sidelines, because we have the power to reject indifference.
So, class of 2019, I bring my student’s question back to all of us. “Will the world ever learn?” Can we take the knowledge that we have acquired during our time at Elon and use it to get off the sidelines? Can we push against our natural inclination to be indifferent? Can we get to the top of that hill, not alone, but together? Can we? The answers to these questions are ever evolving. With every step and every choice, no matter our majors, our career paths, or our life journeys, we can demonstrate that the world can learn.