To all the graduates of 2011, I’m so proud of you – for staying in school, for steering clear of negative forces such as gangs and drugs, and for surviving the toughest of circumstances – even random acts of violence – whether they impacted you dire

To all the graduates of 2011, I’m so proud of you – for staying in school, for steering clear of negative forces such as gangs and drugs, and for surviving the toughest of circumstances – even random acts of violence – whether they impacted you directly or someone you know.

Graduating from high school is a significant accomplishment. A high school diploma is earned, not owed. Sadly, not everybody gets to walk across that stage.

A couple of weeks ago, my husband, Bill, and I watched as our second oldest made that walk. We felt accomplished, too, for the guidance and support we have provided our daughter over the years. But, ultimately, the victory belongs to her. It was her hard work and perseverance that got her there.

Author and poet Maya Angelou said, “Nothing will work unless you do.”

Graduates, these are wise words to take on your journey. Graduation ceremonies are called commencements, because they are the start of the journey, not the end. Your family, teachers and mentors have helped you up to this point. The big difference now is that the responsibility for what happens next has shifted dramatically. Bottom line: it’s on you!

In college, nobody is going to wake you up for class in the morning. There are no do-overs and no excuses for late assignments. There is no such thing as barely getting by. They will put you out.

I believe in you, graduates. Some of you have already overcome tremendous obstacles that have made you strong. Take Dewayne Chester, one of 50 young men who participated in the Chicago Urban League’s mentor program at Hyde Park Academy. The principal at Hyde Park signed him up for our program after Dewayne’s academic performance rapidly declined and discipline problems had him on the brink of being thrown out of school.

“My sophomore year, I was messing up,” admits the 18-year-old recent graduate. “The thing was, I wanted to run around. My grades weren’t always good.”

Dewayne said being a part of the mentor program gave him hope and inspired him to get his act together.

“I really made some accomplishments and improvements,” Dewayne said. “I’m proud of myself and of the Urban League for helping me to do that.”

The real transformation, however, came from within. Last week, I got a chance to talk to Dewayne at an event honoring program participants at the Chicago Urban League. He shared with me that he made a conscious decision not to become a statistic and set a different course for his life.

“I just thought to myself that I really need to step up and take responsibility,” Dewayne said. “After this year, nobody is going to help me. I took advantage of it and focused on this work.”

He even made the honor roll. He is looking for a summer job and plans to attend college in the fall, majoring in Business Administration. Amid all the “Yes ma’ams” and expressions of gratitude, Dewayne had the courage to ask me if I knew of anyone who was hiring. I’m glad to help him out in any way I can. And to think, some people might have written this young man off six months ago. Now, he’s ready to take on the world.

“One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential,” Maya Angelou said. “Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency.” It takes courage to be a Michael Jordan, a Barack Obama, and an Oprah Winfrey. These individuals all worked hard and let nothing stand in their way. That is what it takes to be successful in a competitive world. So graduates, as you continue on your way, consider these words of advice your toolkit for surviving and thriving:

Don’t be afraid to fail. The great Chinese philosopher Confucius said, “Our greatest glory is not in never failing but in rising every time we fall.” Or as Donnie McClurkin sang, “We fall down, but we get up.”

Give back to your community. We need your talent. We need your energy.

We need your commitment to make life better for generations to come.

Exercise your right to vote. Engage in productive debates over issues that impact the economic and social well-being of your family and your community. Stay upbeat and encouraged. Surround yourself with positive people who support your ambitions.

Be a role model. You are educated young adults and members of the most technologically savvy, socially aware generation of all time. Now, take that diploma and regard it as your passport to see and change the world.

Graduates, your future and our future as a community is in your hands. I urge you to embrace the challenges ahead, make the most of every opportunity that comes your way, and by all means, have fun as you work your way to the top. God speed and congratulations to the Class of 2011.

Andrea L. Zopp is president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League.

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