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Class of 2013 challenged to transform urban America in Baccalaureate address

The Rev. Joseph Parkes, founder of a college-preparatory school in Harlem, N.Y. for low-income students, encouraged graduates to help turnaround the lives of inner-city youngsters.

The Rev. Joseph Parkes, founder of Cristo Rey New York High School in Harlem, N.Y., challenged the graduates to reach out to young people in inner-city neighborhoods.

Miracles do happen.

“Until a few months ago, it was considered impossible there would ever be a Jesuit pope. Now we have a humble Jesuit pope. A miracle,” said the Rev. Joseph Parkes to the audience gathered in Alumni Gym Friday afternoon.

The papal conclave’s election of Pope Francis in March was just one of many miracles that Parkes, a Jesuit priest, referenced in his message during Elon’s Baccalaureate service, a multi-faith ceremony the university holds each year in honor of the graduating class, their families and the Elon community.

Parkes is one of the founders of Cristo Rey New York High School, a Catholic, coed, college-preparatory school in Harlem, N.Y. that serves low-income students of all faiths who have demonstrated the potential and the motivation to achieve success. It's one of 25 Cristo Rey schools in the country, and 100 percent of Cristo Rey graduates are accepted into college, Parkes said. A 2013 graduate of Cristo Rey New York High School will start at Elon in the fall as a member of the Class of 2017.

Parkes encouraged Elon’s Class of 2013 to serve others after graduation. He read scripture to them from Acts of the Apostles: “Get up now and go into the city, and you will be told what you have to do.”

“What would you see if you accepted that invitation to get up now and go into the city, and how would your inner vision be changed?” Parkes asked.

“Imagine that you respond yes and go into the city next week, and you realize that there are thousands and thousands of young girls and boys in the low-income area of the city who have great intellectual capital and great human capital that will never be developed to its fullest due to circumstances beyond the children’s control: poverty, dysfunctional families and an inadequate education system,” Parkes said.

He explained the realities of many young people growing up in inner cities. Some will have children as teenagers. Many won’t finish high school or even consider college as an option.

“Many will feel trapped in their neighborhoods and become angry and depressed, turn to alcohol and drugs,” Parkes said. “Many will be incarcerated at some point in their lives. But you, with your background here at Elon, will be told what to do by the spirit whispering in your ear and your heart.”

Parkes told a story about a former student, Abiezer Mendez, who was part of Cristo Rey’s first graduating class. Mendez went on to graduate from Fordham University and now works at JP Morgan Chase. Parkes recently had dinner with Mendez, who reflected back on his time at Cristo Rey. He told Parkes he would do anything to help the school.

“He said there is only one word to describe Cristo Rey: miracle,” Parkes said.

Regardless of where future jobs take them, Parkes encouraged the class to get involved in college-access or mentoring programs.

“You the Class of 2013 can make miracles happen by reaching out to young people like Abiezer Mendez,” Parkes said.

Neima Abdulahi '13 offered reflections about her time at Elon.

Chaplain Jan Fuller explained to the seniors that they were entering a time of major transition that is both exciting and unsettling.

“I encourage you to embrace all of it—the excitement, the sense of accomplishment and also the newness and trepidation of moving into a brand new chapter and way of living,” Fuller said.

Fuller compared life after graduation to transplanting a plant potted into new soil. She said it takes awhile for that plant to flourish in its new environment.

“This is our hope for each of you: that you expect and embrace the transition, with all its tension, grief and joy and that you find your deepening roots and nourishments in new places,” Fuller said.

The ceremony included readings and music performances representative of various secular and religious traditions, as well as a video presentation.

Two seniors, Neima Abdulahi and David Goltz, offered reflections about their time at Elon.

“Islam has taught me about peace, love and most of all understanding,” Abdulahi said. “It has given me a desire to make the world a better place. And Elon has taught me that life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”

Goltz talked about how his life today doesn’t look anything like he imagined when he first started at Elon.

“Elon has taught me to embrace every twist and turn and to appreciate the beauty of the journey,” he said.

Roselee Papandrea Taylor,
5/24/2013 4:40 PM