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'We're all on the same team'

Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp tells 9,000 new ASU degree-holders to fight for human rights

A photograph of undergraduate degree recipients at ASU's 2016 commencement exercises
May 09, 2016

After living through a deep recession and tough political times, Arizona State University’s 2016 graduates are ready to step up and advance human rights, Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp said in her commencement address Monday night.

“Soon you will be in charge,” she told the 9,000 new ASU undergraduate degree-holders in the commencement ceremony at Chase Field in downtown Phoenix.

“Your generation is smart, savvy, discerning and amazingly connected,” she said. “You have grown up in difficult times, through the economic recession that hit this state full force and through struggles for civil rights and justice for all and through a brutish and bruising political climate.”

Kopp was the commencement speaker and received an honorary degreeASU also bestowed an honorary degree on bio-industry leader and social entrepreneur Sir William Castell, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2000. He served as chairman of the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation dedicated to biomedical advances, and is the former president and CEO of GE Healthcare. from ASU. The graduation ceremony was held at Chase Field because Sun Devil Stadium is being renovated.

Teach for America began in 1989 as Kopp’s senior thesis at Princeton University. Her plan was to recruit high-performing college graduates to teach in high-need urban and rural schools. ASU partnered with Teach for America (TFA) in 2006, and last year, ASU ranked fourth in the nation among universities whose graduates commit to TFA, with 49. Since 2012, 182 ASU graduates have joined the program.

Kopp called on the ASU class of 2016 to fight discrimination.

“We know — science has shown — that actively acknowledging that other individuals are on our team wipes out our unconscious biases,” she told the crowd.

“We have to learn to unlearn our biases by reminding ourselves that we are all on the same team.”

In introducing Kopp, ASU President Michael Crow said: “We began as a teachers’ college, we remain a teachers’ college and we’ll forever be a teachers’ college no matter where the future takes us.”

A photograph of Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, speaking at a reception for ASU's TFA graduates

Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America and the speaker at ASU’s 2016 Undergraduate Commencement, spoke with students who are joining Teach for America at a reception Monday afternoon. Photos by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Prior to the undergraduate ceremonies, Crow and Kopp addressed a reception for some of the 40 ASU graduates who will join Teach for America this fall.

“The success of our country is dependent upon one profession above all others: the teacher. The success of the country is dependent upon the teachers,” Crow said.

Crow discussed his own itinerant childhood — he grew up a military brat and went to 17 schools before graduating high school — and the impact teachers made in connecting with him.

“The extent to which you can find a way to focus on the individual child, the individual learner, and find a way to connect with them, it’s really — I can’t begin to tell you how important that is,” Crow said.

Kopp told the graduates that there is hard work to come.

“It’s really up to you all to make it transformational. And I think the thing that will enable you to do that is just to dive in with just genuine openness to the learning journey ahead of you,” she said.

Earlier Monday, some 4,000 students receiving graduate degrees were honored at commencement exercises at Wells Fargo Arena on ASU's Tempe campus.

One of them was Molly Bilker, a print journalism student who received her undergraduate and graduate degrees simultaneously from the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She will join Teach for America in Pueblo, Colorado, this fall.

“Everyone that I’ve been surrounded by has been really amazing. And I know I’m going to be surrounded by a lot of amazing teachers now,” said Bilker, who worked in the Borderlands Bureau of Cronkite News Service and won the award for the highest grade-point average in the college.

“It’s a brand-new adventure. And I’m scared. And I’m excited.”

“Don’t believe for one second that there is a future that’s any less than the present, that there’s a future that’s not fantastic for you. ... Build the world we all want — a world that is fair, just, creative, meaningful — and do not let anyone stop you.”

— ASU President Michael Crow

At Monday night’s ceremony, Crow told the graduates to ignore the negative rhetoric they’re hearing about the future.

“You need to take this education you have received and literally fight for the future. Don’t believe for one second that there is a future that’s any less than the present, that there’s a future that’s not fantastic for you.

“Take your educational experience, your ability to learn anything, to be adaptable, to move things forward.

“Build the world we all want — a world that is fair, just, creative, meaningful — and do not let anyone stop you.”

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