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My Graduation Day with President Obama

Kelsey Socha, a recent graduate of Kalamazoo Central High School, reflects on her experience participating in the Race to the Top Commencement Challenge and having President Obama deliver the commencement address at her graduation.

On Monday, my classmates and I were lucky enough to see President Obama speak at our high school graduation. Our school, Kalamazoo Central High School, was the winner of the first Race to the Top Commencement Challenge. We had approximately 290 students walk proudly across that stage.  I cannot speak for all of them, but as one of the essay writers involved with the contest, I can at least share my story.

During my four years at Kalamazoo Central I have been involved, challenged, and profoundly affected. From my time as a freshman, I have had teachers who supported me in my endeavors and felt a strong sense of community with my classmates regardless of differences in private lives. At Central I have been involved in National Honor Society, PeaceJam, Activists for Action, and a wide variety of art and AP classes. These clubs offer the benefit of a sense of involvement in the outer community and the opportunity to help others (through service projects, recycling, and community fund-raisers) that can be found at no other school. The classes both challenged me and others, and helped us to find innovative ways to solve problems and provided valuable art experience.  The great thing about Central is that there is no status quo. Every group has an important place; these organizations are only one type of possible experience. We stand out as a diverse and accepting climate ultimately focused on success.

At the start of the competition, a small group of us students met to discuss the application and the possibility of submitting our own essays. Looking at the requirements on the essay application, we realized that though we did not always succeed academically or in numbers, it was the effort to constantly better ourselves that made us great. As the Commencement Challenge progressed, our school and community banded together, everyone made a little closer by the potential for greatness. Though confident in this potential, it was a shock to discover that we were the winners of the Commencement Challenge. No one could stop smiling for the day or even the week that it was announced.

When the big day finally came and President Obama surprised us and arrived in our holding room a few hours before schedule, it was surreal, not only for the chance to hear the President speak but to have him mere inches away from us in a private setting. It was more than anyone could have dreamed of. The initial excitement never faded. Later, seeing him on stage joking with our principal, listening to our valedictorian and salutatorian speak, and finally giving us a speech that showed that he had read our essays and paid attention to our community was incredible; an experience none of us graduates or our families will soon forget.  The honor went far beyond the President simply coming to our graduation or even shaking our hands. It was the fact that he made the experience wholly about us, using no political campaigns or agendas, that made it a truly special ceremony.

Next year, I plan to attend the University of Michigan for a double major in Theatrical Design and Production and Communications. Could double majoring even have been possible without the Kalamazoo Promise? It is dubious. The Kalamazoo Promise is a scholarship open to all Kalamazoo Public School grads that pays full tuition for public Michigan universities. It is integral to the success of our graduates and the winning of the Commencement Challenge. The opportunity to pursue these career paths have been shaped by my community and school and even by my work on the Commencement Challenge. A Communications degree could even be used for work on future Commencement Challenges; only this time, from the White House.

President Barack Obama greets and shakes hands  with the graduating class of Kalamazoo Central High School

President Barack Obama greets and shakes hands with the graduating class of Kalamazoo Central High School before the commencement ceremony at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan, June 7, 2010. June 7, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Kelsey Socha is a member of the class fo 2010 at Kalamazoo Central High School, the winner of the 2010 Race to the Top Commencement Challenge.