High School Graduates: Prioritize Connection, Hope, and Love

Rajiv Vinnakota , President

June 13, 2023

“Each of you is a hero with the power to trigger a tsunami of change,” said Citizens & Scholars President Rajiv Vinnakota in his commencement address to graduates of the UChicago Charter School Woodlawn. 

C&S President Rajiv Vinnakota at UChicago Charter School Woodlawn

Sharing his own family’s story—his grandfather was a rice farmer in India who dedicated most of his limited income to his children’s education—Vinnakota urged graduates to prioritize connection, hope, and love. “People who learn how to wield these powers can build up their community and leave this world a better place.” Several of the graduates previously received C&S Civic Spring Fellowships to support their idea for a back-to-school Community Health & Wellness Field Day. The event drew more than 700 students and families; about two dozen organizations and vendors were invited to attend.

Read the full commencement address below.

Each of you is a hero with the power to trigger a tsunami of change

Rajiv Vinnakota
Rajiv Vinnakota

UChicago Charter School Woodlawn commencement address delivered on June 5, 2023, by Rajiv Vinnakota, President, Institute for Citizens & Scholars

Wow. Look at you wonderful (and beautiful) people! Y’all look amazing from where I’m standing. It’s so good to be in this space with you today, sharing your excitement and joy. Getting to spend this time with you and your families is very special and I am grateful.

Before I start, I want to recognize the members of the board and Tanika Island Childress for their expert leadership of the University of Chicago Charter School. Your commitment to Chicago’s students, educators, and families is an inspiration, and it’s your work and the work of the educators and staff that you lead that make this school so special. Your efforts and leadership are why we’re all here today.

I also would like to recognize and thank Shavaughn Monson for her work on behalf of and with the educators, students, and families of Woodlawn. I know you’ve already started great things here and will accomplish a great many more.

I’d also like to recognize valedictorian Michaela Hill and salutatorian Trinity Cribbs. Congratulations on your accomplishments! Well done.

Also, can we all give a round of applause to this 12th-grade team for putting in the hard work to organize this event.

This was a labor of love. I see you, we all see you and appreciate you.

To paraphrase Anne Frank, the famous teen writing while hiding from the Nazis, “How wonderful that no one need wait a single moment to improve the world.”

Students, you all are improving the world by graduating today—and by leaning into the needs of your classmates, your families, your school, and your community.

I applaud your efforts and your achievements. And, I urge you to keep going. Let me take the next few minutes to tell you why.

Keep striving for CONNECTION. Keep maintaining HOPE. Keep acting with LOVE. And get out and vote.

I was invited to give your commencement address, and it’s truly my honor and privilege.

Just yesterday, I was in a similar audience myself, attending my nephew’s graduation.  I waded in the joy of the event and experienced it from where you’re sitting.  So, I KNOW that I’m not the most important or memorable part of today!  

I am, however, charged with putting all this in context while we celebrate your milestone.  

So, my message to you, graduates, will be brief. And, I may even be repetitive…so that my message is remembered!

If I can leave you with one piece of advice that I hope is helpful to you in the future, it’s to prioritize CONNECTION, HOPE, and LOVE in your lives.

Can you repeat these three words with me? CONNECTION … HOPE … LOVE

These three things—CONNECTION, HOPE, and LOVE—are critical to a well-balanced life. But they’re also critical to how you show up in the world. People who learn how to wield these powers can build up their community and leave this world a better place.

So, a warning! I’m going to come back to these three words throughout my remarks this evening.

And you know what’s the best thing about these three things? Everyone can have them, anyone can use them.

To show you what I mean, let me tell you a story. It’s about my father, who grew up in a small village in India, the son of a rice farmer.

My grandfather, the farmer, worked hard in the rice paddies to make a living and support his family. Despite all that hard work, he earned only 30 rupees a month, which today would be a little over seven dollars. 

With those thirty rupees, he had to feed himself, his wife, and six children and provide for all of their needs. Can you imagine? Seven dollars?

So maybe you’ll be surprised to hear that my grandfather spent 24 of those 30 rupees every month on his children’s education, making sure that they went to the only school nearby—four towns away—so that they could have the opportunity to be educated.

Fast forward a few decades and all six of his children graduated from that elementary school; from the even-further-away secondary school and then from college.  They eventually immigrated to the United States and made good lives for themselves here. 

Long story short is that my grandfather wasn’t remarkable – but to me he was extraordinary. He changed the trajectory of his children’s lives and their children’s lives forever. 

He made a huge difference in all our lives because he invested in CONNECTION with his community, HOPE for the future, and LOVE for his family. 

Because of his investment so many years ago, our family and community benefited directly and in turn, helped others. 

For example, I was able to help others outside of my family by starting The Seed Foundation almost 20 years ago, the nation’s first network of public, college-prep boarding schools for underserved children.  

Our SEED School of Washington, DC was the first public school that housed its students in the community in which they resided – growing to serve 400 students in grades 6-12, all living on the school campus during the week.  

Eight years later, we opened a SEED School in Baltimore. Four years after that, we opened a SEED School in Miami.  

The Seed Foundation has helped many families realize their dream of seeing their children thrive with a good education despite the odds stacked against them. I’ve been lucky to work with thousands of students and families through the Seed Foundation.

My grandfather didn’t know exactly what would come from his sacrifice 80 years ago. But his humble efforts led to thousands of lives being improved upon over the course of a few decades. 

I tell you this because I want you to know that our seemingly small actions can (and do!) have a ripple effect on others, and the way we connect with others can be life-changing – even when it feels like we’re starting small and we don’t have much to give.

That ripple effect comes from what?… CONNECTION 

What else?… HOPE 

And what else?… LOVE

That’s right.

Now that you’re facing the next chapter of your lives, you may be asking yourselves what you should do next. How will you make your mark in the world?

Trust me, many adults struggle well into their older years with that question, and few paths are straight lines. Most often, they twist and turn and move in unexpected directions.   

Look at me. I went to college determined to be a medical researcher. So I studied biology! But then I graduated and went into business. And then I gravitated toward education and haven’t looked back.

All of you have tremendous potential to leave your mark in the world but not necessarily in the ways that you think.

Some of you will go on to college, and some of you will enter the workforce immediately.

And some of you may struggle to find your paths both professionally and personally.

But no matter what, all of you will have opportunities to make a difference in your communities, with your families and with your neighbors. You will have a ripple effect on future generations, and you don’t have to earn a lot of money or be extraordinary to do that.

For example, did you know that last year, several of your classmates graduating today – and a few juniors, too – were awarded a fellowship from the organization that I now lead, the Institute for Citizens & Scholars? That’s right!

Our organization awards grants to students with ideas on how to address challenges in their communities.

So your classmates came up with a plan to increase your community’s Covid vaccination rate by 60%.

That was their original idea. But then they talked to their community, to friends, neighbors, advisors and eventually settled on a different plan that would allow them to help their community, your community,  more quickly.

These young people hosted a back-to-school Community Health & Wellness Field Day for more than 700 students and families here in Chicago, and invited over 22 organizations and vendors to attend. The event was created to build community trust and raise awareness so that future attempts to vaccinate community members against Covid would be more successful.  

Talk about twists and turns, right? They stayed flexible, which was the right move.

What I want you to understand is that these classmates of yours – Palmer Helm, Destiny Mays, Serenity Jones, Aniyah Roberts, Jamiya Neely, Chris Blackburn, and Jada Billups – are special, but their work was not superheroic. They had an idea to solve a problem for their community and acted on that idea, bringing in people to help along the way. 

They used CONNECTION, HOPE, and LOVE to bring their plan to life. That’s it. And that was everything.

It was everything because your class has already overcome so many obstacles just to be sitting in this room today. A global pandemic with mental health challenges and messed up school years. Violence in our schools and communities.

Not to mention the routine discrimination many of you face because of race, ethnicity, income level, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical ability and other characteristics that people use to identify you…but that we know don’t define you.

There are many filters that people use to look at you, assumptions many fall back on when they see you.

These assumptions even impact how adults see your whole generation. We hear how your generation could be heroic but is too sensitive and reactionary. How you should solve all the world’s problems, but life will pass you by because you’re on your phones too much. 

But we know these are just assumptions. Myths. 

Here’s what we know to be TRUE about you:

According to recent Harvard research, your generation is more action-oriented, politically engaged, and hopeful than older generations believe.

Your generation is more empathic and concerned with justice. You’re on the front lines of powerful social movements for racial justice, for climate justice, against police brutality, and against gun violence.

Your generation knows how to influence many others using the communications and tech that you’ve grown up with, like social media. 

In both the 2018 midterms and 2020 presidential elections, your generation turned out to vote in record numbers—almost DOUBLING the turnout from 2014. This, despite the fact that you’ve experienced so many challenges. 

So you see, you’re already extraordinary and have many of the skills that you need to make a positive difference in the world. All you need to do is step up for your community and let CONNECTION, HOPE and LOVE drive you

When I left university, I went into management consulting because I was young and ambitious. And I did well in the field – I was promoted multiple times by the age of 25 and was making a name for myself. 

But I felt like something was missing. While being ambitious is good and working in the business world taught me a lot, I knew that I wanted to do more than just make lots of money for myself. I needed to feel like my work and my personal values were aligned—that what I did every day was helping others.

So this is what put me on the path that eventually led to my starting The Seed Foundation and then to leading the Institute for Citizens & Scholars, where I get to learn from young people doing real things to better their communities. 

As you get older, people will tell you that you have to strive for success. I encourage you to aim higher – strive to make a positive difference in your community in any way that you can. 

In everything that you do, in every interaction:

Strive for … what? … CONNECTION.

Maintain … what?… HOPE.

Act with … what? …  LOVE.

By living your life with CONNECTION, HOPE, and LOVE at the center, you can be an everyday hero. And you don’t have to choose a career in the nonprofit sector.

Take time once a month to volunteer at your church or local school. Use your talents and ideas to help others. Good at math? Help younger students get good too by tutoring or creating a study group. Good at problem-solving? Start a clothing recycling program in your neighborhood. 

And I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t tell you to make sure you vote in every election, local, state, and federal—from school board to president. Your generation is voting in record numbers—do more of that!

I can’t promise you that you will be the next LeBron James or Beyoncé or Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Barack Obama. You might be and you might not. 

But I can promise you that you will make a positive difference in this world by being engaged in your community and believing that things can always get better.

Look around you. Notice your family members, your neighbors, your classmates who are doing a little bit here, a little bit there, to make their communities better, to improve the lives of those around them.

I think of my mother who exhibits more connection, hope, and love than anyone I know. She is an inspiration to me and to all those around her. 

And I’m not just saying this because I love her, though I do.

Think about it, who in your life inspires you with their connection, hope, and love?

In order to have a thriving civil society, we have to have individuals who are driven by connection, hope, and love. They are the ones who make positive change for their communities and the world.

Look for those people around you. Be those people.

However, I don’t want you to think that you have to be saints or perfectly selfless people in order to better your community.

All the people that I have told you about—myself included—have their faults and make mistakes. Hope drives us and keeps us engaged.

You, too, are capable of improving your community and leaving this world better than you found it. I know this because you overcame so much to make it here today. 

Like my grandfather and father, you may have no idea of the impact you are having on others. But I can guarantee you that it’s already happening.

Each of you is a hero with the power to trigger a tsunami of change

Your potential will be measured by how you express your humanity, not by the size of your bank account. And what you accomplish will be measured by the impact you have on others.

Everyone here today is extremely proud of you. Take care, and congratulations!

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