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Ideas and Solutions

Dear 2021 Graduates: You’re Ready to Get Back in the Boat

Teach For America’s CEO tells this year’s graduates their resilience is inspiring—and their leadership is needed.

June 14, 2021
 Elisa Villanueva Beard Profile

Elisa Villanueva Beard

 Elisa Villanueva Beard Profile

Elisa Villanueva Beard

Dear Class of 2021,

Congratulations! At long last, you’re college graduates. You have many reasons to be proud. I hope you take time to celebrate this accomplishment with loved ones and friends.

Before you look too far into the future, I also encourage you to step back and take stock of the last year. In March 2020, it felt like we were all on a boat in the middle of the ocean, with the wind pushing us straight into a storm. The storm hit, and it was stronger than we ever imagined. The rudder flew off and the sail ripped. We collided with treacherous swells, ocean water drenched us, and we tried avoiding sharp rocks. For more than a year, we all lived in a different and sometimes terrifying world.

I talk often about the power of crucible moments, especially for young leaders. My advice has always been to seek out these experiences. A crucible breaks you and rebuilds you, strips you of your comfort, and stretches your understanding of what you’re capable of. It challenges your resolve and summons strengths you didn’t know you had. The late Chadwick Boseman brought this idea home in his 2018 message to Howard University graduates: “Sometimes you need to get knocked down before you can really figure out what your fight is and how you need to fight it.”

This past year was a crucible moment for our country and our world. And because of what you endured and how you responded, you all have a clearer sense of your values and direction than many graduating classes who’ve come before you.

When our schools shut down, you adapted to new ways of teaching and learning—and then adapted again when they reopened. After the murders of our Black brothers and sisters, you joined your communities in the streets to protest for long-overdue racial justice. You mobilized in record numbers to vote in a historic election. You persisted through all of this, and more, amid the shockwaves of a global pandemic. Throughout a year defined by loss and uncertainty, your drive and resilience shone as a beacon of possibility.

So, what does all of this mean for your future?

That’s up to you. You will decide how you harness your values and where to invest your leadership. The last year has proved that your experiences as a student matter. Your beliefs and perspectives matter. And after everything you’ve done, seen, and dreamt of, you can be the leaders we need in this moment. You can confront the status quo and reject the centuries-old inequities across our country.

At Teach For America, we take on the inequities in our education system to ensure that all children have the opportunity to lead, learn, and thrive. We know that all the systems in a community and a society collide in the classroom. It’s where those committed to change can make an immediate, positive impact, now and in the years to come. And it’s where, with deep partnership and love, you can witness and foster the brilliance of our young people. Whether you choose to enter our fight for educational equity or a different field, the important thing is to get in the arena, get proximate, and find out what lights that fire in your bellies, hearts, and minds.

Right now, I’m asking you to look back to the storm we experienced during these past 15 months, remember the cold water, the wind, and the waves, and reflect on how it changed you and the world. When I look out on the horizon, I see many thunderclouds and a real need for leaders like you to emerge with new clarity and conviction. 

You may still have a lot to learn about yourselves and how you can make your mark on the world. And yet, you’ve already taught us so much. Rest up, restore, and celebrate because I expect to see you back in the water soon. You’re more than ready to chart a new course and set sail. The next time a storm arises, I know you’ll meet it with even greater resolve and an even stronger sense of purpose.

Congratulations, Class of 2021. Let’s do this.

Elisa Villanueva Beard