Good afternoon to the John Carroll Community, and especially the members of the Class of 2009. Today, I am not going to say “your future is ahead of you”, or that “the wheel of life is in your hands” because these statements are simplistic advice in a complex world I will not tell you that “from this day forward, anything is possible” because tomorrow I am going to be moving back in with my parents.
Instead, today I will talk about two people whose lives were altered by the institution from which we are graduating. One was an award winning journalist from a working class family in a working class town. The second person has little in common with the first, except for a degree from John Carroll and a desire to effect change as a journalist. That person is me.
I had the opportunity to intern at NBC studios two summers ago and I was invited to a taping of Tim Russert’s Meet the Press. After the taping, I sat in a circle with the twenty other interns while Mr. Russert answered our questions about the world of journalism and the power that it wields. He told us about his interview with former Vice President Cheney the day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He told us about his meeting with the Pope and about his upcoming interviews with each presidential candidate running for office that summer.
“You have to ask the tough questions,” he said. “That is the only way you get the truth; the only way to make a difference.”
He then asked us each to go around the circle and tell him our names and where we were attending college. As my fellow interns rattled off Ivy League schools, Mr. Russert simply smiled and nodded. When it was my turn, I proudly said, “I go to John Carroll University.” Mr. Russert threw his hands in the air, then clapped them together by his heart and said “Go Blue Streaks!”
“Do you know, I am a Blue Streak?” he asked me.
After the taping, I continued to think about Mr. Russert’s statement, “I am a Blue Streak.” The word that resonated with me most was the word “am,” suggesting that, although he had graduated from JCU decades before, Mr. Russert still considered himself an active member of its community. He still considered himself a Blue Streak.
These words carried me back to the day I first entered this University as a student four years ago. I stood at the steps of the DJ Lombardo student center and scanned the green quad and the violet flowers on its periphery. I looked at the statue of St. Ignatius, bold and symbolic of the Jesuit mission, grasping a sword. And finally, I looked at the bell tower, the most recognizable feature of this University.
After taking in this scene, I felt as if I belonged; as if I had all the answers. Then I stopped and asked myself a question to which I did not have an answer: “What in the world is a Blue Streak?”
In order to answer that question, I want to share with you my experience of mentoring inner city school children, starting with this sentence: “My friend is poor because she got nothing in her house” Daisha, a third grade student who had failed the Ohio Proficiency exam in previous years and struggled to read a first grade level story book, read this sentence to me when asked to construct one using the vocabulary word “poor.”
After each session, my classmates and I would drive twenty minutes down the road from Diasha’s school to John Carroll University in University Heights. After taking this route several times, I realized the striking change in scenery. In less than twenty minutes, we traveled from rundown duplexes surrounded by grassless front yards and rickety fences to a multimillion-dollar college campus, encircled by elegant family homes and churches. After considering the noticeable differences between Daisha’s school and neighborhood and mine, I began to question why this was so.
For Daisha, whose mother worked several jobs and had no time to aide her children with homework, higher education may not be an option. For the children in University Heights, however, the choice of where to attend college exists as a difficult decision.
Why had Daisha been ignored? What allowed this ignorance to persist? These are the tough questions that have to be asked in order to get the truth and to make a difference.
At my last visit to the inner city school, I asked Daisha to create a sentence with the vocabulary word “wisdom.” After much deliberation, she wrote in her notebook: “If I study hard, I will get wisdom.”
Despite its grammatical errors, Daisha’s sentence reflects the crux of the Jesuit mission. This wisdom emphasized through our training allows us to ask the difficult questions necessary to effect change. Our Jesuit education equips us not only with the knowledge but the resources to highlight Daisha’s conditions and make people care about and invest in children like her. It challenges us to engage the world.
After my four years here, I know why Mr. Russert valued his experience at John Carroll. I see how he was able to channel his skill set, developed through this University, to tell the stories of the voiceless like Daisha, and how he has inspired me to do the same.
So let us return to the question of “What is a Blue Streak?” Does it mean being an award-winning journalist whose passion for and commitment to the truth produced some of the most effective dialogue in this country’s recent history? Does it mean being the winningest coach in the history of the NFL? Does it mean becoming the CEO of a fortune 500 company? A neurosurgeon? An Entrepreneur?
Sure, it means all this, but it means much more.
To say “I am a Blue Streak” is to say that while you sit atop your bunk-bed in your heated dorm room, looking at the snow covered Quad outside your window, you are troubled by the fact that just down the street, an old woman sits atop a heated grate.
To say, “I am a Blue Streak” is to say that while you stand on the steps of the student center, overlooking the manicured lawn and the purple flowers thriving on its border, you are concerned that five miles down the road, a child in a tattered t-shirt stands on the crumbling steps of his house, overlooking potholes in the road and police cars on the corner.
To say “I am a Blue Streak” is to say that while you wait in a doctor’s office with your insurance card in hand, you find it problematic that the person next to you has skipped meals to pay to see the same doctor.
To say “I am a Blue Streak” is to say that while you plant flowers outside a deteriorating elementary school, place books on the shelf in its library and play hoops with its students on a crumbling basketball court, you know you are only making a dent in solving problems of social injustice, but you sign up to do it every year because you believe a few dents will eventually make a hole.
It is traveling to New Orleans, or Louisville, or Chicago, or Guatemala, or Nicaragua on your spring break to recognize that poverty and injustice penetrate every community.
It is being the catalyst for social change and identifying situations that need to be examined further with a more critical lens.
It is to know all the opportunities you have earned and have been given and to share them with others.
To be a Blue Streak means that when you meet another person from John Carroll University, you can clap your hands, close to your heart, and say, “I AM a Blue Streak.” And that person will know, immediately, who you are.