Roosevelt University senior Danielle Smith will make school history Friday as the first student ever to deliver a commencement address at a university graduation ceremony.
The 21-year-old special education major was chosen unanimously out of nine other nominees after submitting a 1,000-word essay about how Roosevelt has influenced her since she first moved to Chicago from her hometown of Mokena as a freshman.
"Roosevelt has made me a more well-rounded and informed person," Smith wrote in her essay. "I feel like I look at the world with such an open mind, and now when I see a problem, I look at it as my responsibility, not as 'oh that's someone else's job.'"
Assistant political science professor David Faris originally proposed having a student speak at commencement. Graduation ceremonies at his alma mater, Drew University in New Jersey, featured both a professional and a student speaker.
"It really gave the students some buy-in for the graduation as a ceremony, rather than feeling like it was just this thing they were dragging their family to," Faris said. "It meant a lot to us as students to have someone up there who have shared some of the same experiences and the same professors."
Elizabeth Choporis, director for student involvement at Roosevelt, said Smith's excellent public speaking skills and enthusiasm made nominating her for the opportunity a no-brainer. "Her love for Roosevelt is just constantly shining through everything that she does," Choporis said. "Hers was the first name that came to mind."
During her time at Roosevelt, Smith has worked as a student orientation leader, an athletic peer mentor, and an aide to the disabilities coordinator in Roosevelt's Academic Success Center, all while serving as captain of the women's tennis team. Despite her hectic schedule, she made the dean's list every semester. She was also a member of Roosevelt's Franklin Honors Society for academic excellence and received the University's Torch Award for Student Service.
Smith was excited when she learned she had been nominated to give the speech, but said she didn't initially realize just how significant an opportunity it was.
"I didn't know that I would be the first student to ever do this," Smith said. "I just thought, 'This would be cool.' Now everybody is telling me what a big deal it is."
She said her commencement address is inspired by the quote, "When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hold on," which has been attributed to both Thomas Jefferson and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The quote applies not only to the message she wants to share with her graduating class but to some of the struggles she experienced during college.
Smith briefly considered leaving Roosevelt for another school because she was thinking about teaching Spanish and the university doesn't offer a Spanish major. It was a dinner with her fellow student orientation leaders that changed her mind.
"Half of them said that at one point they considered leaving, too, but they were so glad they didn't," Smith said. "So I thought, 'Why don't I just stick it out?' I'm really happy I did."
Things turned around pretty quickly after that—she got her job as an aide to the disabilities coordinator, which only made her more confident in her decision to switch to special education. This past summer she was named head orientation leader and helped organize the brand new orientation program. She also developed an enthusiasm for Roosevelt's core mission of social justice.
"Before I came to Roosevelt, I didn't know it was a school for social justice. I don't think I even knew what that really meant before I started here," she said. "And now I'm obsessed with it."
That passion for social justice is something she hopes to continue spreading as a special education teacher after graduation. Smith—whose former professor Margaret Policastro said will be "a principal's dream come true wherever she lands a job"—is determined to teach in Chicago Public Schools after graduation.
"I could come back home and teach in the suburbs, but I've only applied to Chicago Public Schools. I haven't applied anywhere else," she said. "I want to show people who haven't had the same chances that I had that there's still a chance for them out there."
"Some people have asked me if I'm sure I want to teach in Chicago because of how difficult it can be," Smith added. "But I like a challenge."
Erin Vogel is a RedEye special contributor.
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