Jeff Kwitowski, Senior Vice President of Public Affairs, speaks at TXVA Graduation on Thursday, June 9th.
Thank you very much. I am honored to be here to celebrate this great day with all of you. Congratulations to the graduates of TEXAS VIRTUAL ACADEMY. You achieved your high school degree. It is a great accomplishment and a very important step in your life journey.
Also, a special thanks to the teachers and staff at TEXAS VIRTUAL ACADEMY for your hard work and your dedication to serving the needs of your students. You’ve made tremendous investments into the lives of these young adults and it has paid off.
Finally, congratulations to the parents, family members and relatives of the Class of 2016. Your love, support, and sacrifice have made a difference. I’m a parent, so I know the pride you Moms and Dads must be feeling right now. It is well deserved.
So, how many of you have had to answer this question: “Where do you go to school?”
Of course, when YOU answer that question it is usually followed by another one: “What on earth is an online school?”
Then, 20 minutes into explaining how your school works, how you learn, how you communicate with your teachers, you were probably thinking to yourself, “Man, I should have just said the name of some local school.” Everyone knows how a traditional school works, but nobody seems to understand the world of online learning.
Well, that exchange pretty much sums up my 13 years at K12. I work in the field of public affairs where I communicate to media, legislators, policymakers, and others about online schools. We advocate for these schools, but more importantly, we advocate for YOU – fighting to provide more education options for students and to give parents the freedom to choose the school they believe is best for their children.
Fifteen years ago there were no online high school graduations. America had fewer education options and less school choice. Of course this day is about you, not me, however as I stand here today, I take pride in knowing that our advocacy efforts – for online schools and more choice in education — played a small part in making today a reality.
But the real hard work was yours alone. Some things in life are given to us, but a high school diploma is earned. And Class of 2016 – you have earned it. And you’ve done it in a very unique way through an innovative model of learning that is still in its formative years. Others have come before you, but not many. You are a part of a class of pioneers who are blazing a trail in K through 12 education, and that is special.
So the next chapter in your life is about to begin. Some of you may be heading off to college. Others may be starting your career. Some of you may be taking time off to go an adventure or pursue a passion in life. Whatever you are doing, do it with gusto. Take the opportunities given to you.
I remember when I graduated from a small college in Rochester, NY. It’s a short distance from my where I grew up in Buffalo, NY. Where I came from there was kind of an expectation that kids would either stay in Buffalo or eventually come back and make a living in the hometown where they were raised and where their parents lived. But my Dad – a blue collar worker with a limited education– thought differently. He knew I had an itch to scratch.
You see, I love politics. When I was a kid, after Church on Sunday my Dad and I would watch the political shows on TV, and we never missed NBC’s Meet the Press. Afterwards, we would grab something to eat and talk about national and international affairs – which probably bored my Mom, brother and sister to death, but we didn’t care. The only thing that shut down our conversation was when the Buffalo Bills game would start.
Now, don’t worry, I promise not to bring up the two times the Bills thoroughly embarrassed the Cowboys in back to back Super Bowls.…oh wait, that didn’t happen?
Okay, I better to get back to my story.
In the 1980’s Buffalo’s own Tim Russert was NBC’s Washington Bureau Chief. He took over as host of Meet the Press in 1991. You students may not know about Tim Russert, but your parents probably do. He is considered to be one of the greatest political commentators and television journalists ever. He was also beloved by everyone.
As I entered my last year in college, I planned to head back home, find a job and start my life. But my Dad pushed me to go out of my comfort zone, take an internship in Washington, DC and scratch that political itch.
After my internship, I ended up staying in DC, living out of a low-rent, dingy basement room for a few years, bouncing around a couple jobs until I landed a position working in a public policy organization as an advisor to a couple high-profile political figures. Both were sought after by the national media and regularly appeared on the top political shows. Which meant I spent many days at television studios, including frequent appearances on the set of NBC’s Meet the Press.
Which is where I got to know Tim Russert.
I remember the first time I met Tim. It was surreal, being face to face with guy my Dad and I watched from our living room for years. Immediately, he took interest in a young 20-something year-old kid from Buffalo was who living in a grimy basement trying to make his way up in the big city. He took to calling me “the Polish rocket.” I have no idea why, but he thought it was hilarious. Maybe it was the nickname of some kid in in his old neighborhood.
In a city known for being out of touch with the everyday America, Tim was the exact the opposite. Here was this giant of a man whose job it was to ask the most difficult questions to the most powerful people in the world, and he was asking me about my life and my dreams….and, since he grew up a few blocks from my childhood home, about the news from our old stomping grounds.
Tim was a couple years younger than my Dad. Their paths were very different, but in many ways they were the same.
Tim went to college then law school, took a job with a former Senator from New York and went on to a prestigious career in politics and journalism. My Dad was drafted into the Army and after he returned spent almost his whole life working a hard-hat job at a Telephone Company climbing poles and splicing cables.
But they were also very similar men: Both were born and raised in Buffalo. Tim on the Southside (a heavily Irish neighborhood); My Dad on the East side (a heavily Polish neighborhood). They both grew up in working class homes, attended Catholic schools, and shared many of the same values and outlook on life. Both revered their families – their wives and children.
They also both died of sudden heart attacks. Almost exactly one year apart. My Dad was 60. Tim was 58. Two great men, who left this world too early.
But both left behind incredible legacies.
Most importantly – and this is what I want to impress upon all of you graduates – neither man defined himself by the standards of this world – by their jobs, their level of education, their monetary wealth, or lack thereof.
No. They were defined by who they were and the life they lived. They embraced everlasting virtues – integrity, humility, generosity, kindness, and fidelity – these are the things that endure and never fade. They are what build and sustain great legacies. They are what matter most in life. Chase after these virtues, not worldly things, and you will create your own lasting legacies.
Another one of those virtues is honor. I want to emphasize this because it ties into the story I told and this celebration today.
The day my parents dropped me off in Washington, DC I said to them, “Mom, Dad, I promise to make you proud.” I knew what they did for me to help me chase my dreams. I wanted to honor them. The reason I spoke to you today about my Dad is because every chance I get I want to honor him and his legacy.
Shortly before he passed away, Tim Russert wrote a book about his father called Big Russ and Me — Father and Son: Lessons of Life. He did it to honor his father, the man he credited more than anyone for his success and his values. I suspect telling the world about his father was more satisfying to Tim than interviewing world leaders on the biggest stage.
Graduates, today you honor your parents, you honor your grandparents, and others who have stood with you. They have made investments and sacrifices. They loved and guided as you as best they could. You may not fully understand it now – you will later – but your happiness matters deeply to them. Continue to honor your parents in all you do.
Graduates, your legacy starts now. Pursue your passions, but even more, pursue goodness. Because it is not what you do, what you have, or what you know, but how you live that will ultimately define you.
I am confident you are prepared for the challenges ahead. You have already accomplished something that few people your age have done – graduating from a full-time online public school.
When you were born, if someone had asked your parents how likely would it be that their son or daughter would graduate from an online high school, few, if any would have said it was possible. In fact, they probably would have asked, “What on earth is an online school?” But here you are today, graduates of TEXAS VIRTUAL ACADEMY, having earned a degree in a type of school that, a generation ago, nobody could have even imagined.
As my Dad and Tim Russert would were both fond of saying, “Only in America.”
Congratulations Class of 2016. God bless you and thank you very much.