Commencement addresses bring life to students' experiences and opportunities

When Lukas Kassa graduated high school, he decided not to walk across the stage.

At the June 3 commencement for the Community College of Baltimore County, he not only will walk on the stage, he'll speak from it.

A student speaker at commencement has been a college tradition since the early 2000s, after administrators polled students about their preferences and learned they connected more with remarks from their peers, said Hope Davis, a CCBC spokeswoman.

The speaker each year is the recipient of the President's Distinguished Graduate Award. Given annually, the award recognizes a student who has shown exemplary leadership and a commitment to help others.

A committee interviews candidates and forwards recommendations to the president, Sandra L. Kurtinitis, who makes the final call.

"When he began to share his story, this was a young man with a story of second chances and would connect well with our students," Davis said about Kassa, who earned an associate of applied sciences degree in chemical dependency counseling in December.

Kassa, 26, transferred to University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he has finished his first semester towards a bachelor's degree in social work. He also manages a recovery house in Pasadena and will soon begin working at a treatment center in Baltimore helping with assessments of juveniles who come through the court system.

After battling drug issues throughout his teenage years, Kassa came to CCBC in March 2014, 90 days clean, with the hopes of becoming a drug counselor so he could help kids who are in situations similar. He remains drug-free to this day, he said.

At CCBC, where he took classes at all three of its campuses, Kassa built his self-esteem and self-efficacy, he said. He looks forward to sharing his story during his graduation speech. His speech has been written and submitted to the college for approval.

"I think the bigger the crowd, the better," he said. "It's an energy I can feed off of if there's a larger crowd."

At the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, two UMBC graduates spoke during last week's commencement ceremonies. Stephanie Hill, vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin's Cyber, Ships & Advanced Technologies business unit and Ralph Semmel, director of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, presented remarks.

UMBC spokeswoman Candace Dodson-Reed said in a statement that the majority of the school's 70,000 alumni live and work in Maryland.

"Over the past 50 years, the achievements of our graduates have represented the success our nation envisioned when we opened our doors," she said. "As we close out our year-long 50th celebration, we selected two alumni as our commencement speakers because they represent the best of UMBC."

Area public high schools follow a set of county guidelines for their graduation ceremonies, which feature speeches from Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent S. Dallas Dance, the school's principal and students.

At Lansdowne High School, the student speakers are the senior class's valedictorian and salutatorian, neither of whom have been determined yet, said principal Ken Miller. Once they are identified, they will work with school English teachers on their speeches and practice their delivery, he said.

About 310 students are expected to graduate, he said.

As for his own speech, Miller said he tries to capture the class's personality in his remarks and talk about what the future can hold. While the students' high school days are coming to a close, the day is a celebration of their next steps, he said.

"It's just one of those days where everyone's happy, everyone's proud, it's just a joyous moment," he said. "Whether you're going to college, the military or the workplace, this is it. This was your training ground and now you start."

But as he, as well as Catonsville High School principal Matt Ames, noted, the day is not about them.

"I realize that I'm just in the way of what the family wants to see," Miller said. "They're not there to hear me talk."

"It's not really about me," Ames said. "The kids want to hear from their peers. They want to receive their diplomas and be with their families."

Ames said he usually waits until the week before graduation to prepare his speech. As he's in his second year leading the school, he'll talk with guidance counselors and other staff who have been at the school all four years the class was there to get a sense of it. He'll also be sure to include the amount of scholarship money the class has received.

He'll also invite the students back to school, pointing out the alumni is a big part of the fabric of the school's culture. More than 100 alumni come back to the school each year the day before Thanksgiving for a career day, when they go into classrooms and talk about their time at school and what they're doing now. Its a way to tie the past with the present and the future, he said.

Students auditioned earlier in the month to speak at commencement. They had to deliver their speech in front of a panel of teachers who chose the two speakers for this year's ceremony.

Deborah Stephens, a math teacher and graduation co-coordinator, said the speeches must capture the attention of graduates and their families.

"They're always so articulate and the speeches are so powerful," Ames said. "I've always been impressed with the messages these kids have for their fellow classmates."

Assistant principal Michele Landen said 429 students are expected to graduate.

The Lansdowne and Catonsville graduations are scheduled for Friday.

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