Sample Speech # 7

Commencement Address at Drew University

by Wendy Kopp

Wendy Kopp came up with the idea of Teach for America while writing her senior thesis at Princeton University. Once Kopp graduated, she made her dream into a reality by creating a successful organization through which several thousand college graduates have already been sent to teach in needy public schools across the country. In the commencement address that follows, delivered at Drew University on May 20, 1995, Kopp explains that she and others were able to make Teach for America a success because they all believed that the organization's goals justified a great investment of work, time, and sacrifice. Ultimately, her message is meant to inspire audience members to dedicate themselves to pursuing their own convictions and finding a way to make a difference.

            I'm honored to have the chance to talk with you all on this important occasion, and I'm truly excited to have a few minutes to share what I have learned since graduating from college six years ago.

            At that time, back in May of 1989, I was still a college senior just two weeks away from my own graduation. I remember very clearly what I was thinking and doing.

            I was obsessed with the idea of a national teacher corps—a corps of recent college graduates who would commit two years to teach in urban and rural public schools suffering from persistent teacher shortages. I imagined thousands of the nation's most talented graduating seniors from all different academic majors clamoring to be a part of a movement to build our nation's future. I imagined hundreds of them working in schools across the country going above and beyond to motivate their students to fulfill their true potential. I imagined an ever-expanding force of leaders who would advocate throughout their lives for educational excellence and equity. I envisioned this national teacher corps changing lives and deepening the conscience of our nation.

            I was determined to make Teach for America a reality, and luckily I was uncommonly naive—so naive that I believed that this could happen. The plan was to recruit 500 people in the first year, train them together during a summer, place them in five or six sites across the country and support the entire effort on grants from corporations and foundations.

            I began by writing letters to 30 CEOs at randomly selected corporations, hoping that one of them would give me a seed grant. Miraculously, one of the letters reached an executive at Mobil who took the time to read my proposal, thought it was a great idea, and decided to give me the $26,000 necessary to spend my summer working to get Teach for America off the ground.

            I knew I could not create Teach for America alone, and so I began searching for a group of other recent college graduates who would dedicate themselves full-time to this mission. Within a few months, some phenomenal individuals had come together. Many of them would devote 16 or more hours a day, for two or three or four or five years even, to see through the creation of Teach for America.

            Our first step was to find a student on each of 100 college campuses to spread the word about Teach for America. One hundred students across the country determined that this had to happen and took the personal initiative to distribute flyers, to hold events, to encourage their peers to commit two years to teach in the nation's most under-resourced public schools.

            In response to this call to action, 2,500 individuals applied to Teach for America in a four-month period. Of these, 500 charter corps members committed to Teach for America. We organized an eight-week summer training program for them, and then they traveled to school districts in five different places across the country. They assumed teaching positions in school districts where someone—a superintendent or a personnel director—had understood our vision, believed in it, and decided to help us make it a reality. By the end of the year, corporations and foundations had committed more than $2 million to us to pay all the expenses we incurred.

            Over the past six years, we have inspired 18,000 individuals to compete to enter Teach for America. As of this coming fall, we will have trained and placed more than 3,000 of them in 15 communities across the country. At any given time, 1,000 Teach for America corps members everywhere from South Central Los Angeles to the rural South to the South Bronx are going above and beyond to help their students excel. And each year, the force of alumni who have been fundamentally shaped by this experience and who are acting on this experience expands by 500.

            I tell this story in such great detail because I want to convey how and why Teach for America actually came to be. Teach for America came to be because people with strong convictions—convictions fundamentally based on compassion for others and on an ambitious sense of the possible—were willing to take difficult steps to act on those convictions. Teach for America is here today because of the executive at Mobil, because of the recent college graduates who devoted themselves to our staff, because of the 100 college students who committed to inspire their peers to apply, because of the 500 charter corps members, because of the district superintendents, because of the people who committed funds. It would have been easier for the executive at Mobil to have not made that grant. It would have been easier for the people who joined our staff to remain in their other jobs. It would have been easier for those 500 recent college graduates to take positions with organizations that had proven records and offered more security. But for all these people, it wasn't an option to do what was easier.

            I know I'm speaking here today because I'm a young person who has started an organization, but I didn't want you all to come away from this thinking that the way to make a difference is to go start your own organization. That might be the right thing for some people, but it won't be for everyone. I do believe, however, that all of us owe it to ourselves and to the world to spend our lives searching for what we believe, searching constantly for what's “right.” We owe it to ourselves and to the world to base our convictions on compassion for others—whether that means to us compassion for members of our families or communities or nation. We owe it to ourselves and to the world to operate on the assumption that positive change can happen. We owe it to ourselves and to the world to make the daily choices—always—to act on our beliefs.

            There's no excuse for living life any other way, but there are many people who do. There are people whose reason for being is to shoot down what other people believe. There are people whose sole purpose in life is to be well liked. There are others who are guided by cynicism and doubt, some who live simply to get by, and still others who simply don't have the personal confidence to act on their beliefs. It's easier for people to live this way, but ultimately it's less fulfilling and less meaningful.

            The coming years have the potential to be the most broadening, expanding, enlightening years of your lives. I hope you will use them to engage yourself in a constant search for what is right. Put yourselves in foreign situations, in challenging situations, in situations which will deepen your empathy for others, your understanding of others, your concern for others. I hope that as we learn, we'll hold on to our sense of possibility. We'll certainly learn about lots of obstacles to change, but in spite of those obstacles we must hold on to the belief that positive change can happen—because it is that belief that will give us the purpose and the strength to act on what we believe is right. Then it's simply a matter of refusing to compromise the convictions we form.

            I want to leave you with a short story that illustrates the power of this approach to life. Two Teach for America corps members in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas wrote me last week to tell me about a student of theirs. Juan is, they wrote, “at once, the callus handed field worker who helps his family pay for a small, two-room house by picking citrus fruit or pulling onions, and the wide-eyed, book-toting genius who insatiably absorbs knowledge and ideas before throwing that knowledge back to a teacher with questions—questions that demonstrate not only a comprehensive understanding of the material but also a profound desire and ability to challenge it and make it his own.” Our corps members described their dream that Juan would attend summer school at Oxford University, where he would learn from Rhodes Scholars and university professors, and where he would continue his unbelievably rapid intellectual growth. Now Juan has been accepted to a highly competitive program there, and his two teachers are working furiously to raise [the] $5,500 necessary to enable him to go. These teachers didn't have to notice Juan's potential, they wouldn't have had to encourage him to apply to the Oxford program, and now they wouldn't have to go to extraordinary effort to raise the necessary funding. But their conviction, compassion, their sense of possibility, and their determination to do what is right have led them down this path. Juan's life may very well be different because of it.

            I wish you all the best. Thank you very much.

Discussion Questions

1.  What is the general purpose of this speech? What is its specific purpose?

2.  How does Kopp establish her credibility in this commencement address?

3.  How does the speaker target her message and adapt to the audience?

4.  What technique does Kopp use to end her speech with impact?