Michelle Obama to Speak at Commencement

Elizabeth Dobbins, News Editor

First Lady Michelle Obama is going to speak at commencement on May 25 thanks to a short video showcasing the Ninde Scholars Program.

“We’re so excited and proud. I would say overwhelming excitement and pride,” said Katie Hayes, Ninde Scholars Program college access coordinator.

Almost two months ago, College senior and Bonner Scholar Patrick Gilfether sat down with Ninde Scholar Morgan Smith and her tutor, College junior Amethyst Carey, to meet and discuss the filming of a short video. Over the next week and a half, Gilfether and several collaborators shot, edited and submitted the video to the Office of the First Lady’s “Near-Peer Mentoring” College Challenge and promptly moved on to the next project. This Tuesday, Gilfether, along with the rest of the student body, was reminded of the video when the Office of the First Lady announced that the project had won the contest, securing First Lady Michelle Obama as a 2015 Commencement speaker alongside previously announced Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund.

“I sent it off and felt really good that I made it for them and didn’t really think much of it; that was a month and a half ago,” Gilfether said. “I was just like, ‘OK, cool. On to the next project that I have to work on.’ And I woke up [Tuesday] and got the news and I was just floored. I really didn’t expect that we were going to win, not because I didn’t think it was good, just that it was Michelle Obama.”

Associate Director of Media Production in the Communications Office Zach Christy produced the video, but the project was ultimately student-led with direction by Gilfether and music by double-degree junior Kirk Pearson.

Gilfether said he tried to make a competitive video that was both short and, by focusing on only two people, emotionally involving. However, in addition to making a competitive video, Hayes said the organization wanted a video that could provide publicity and communicate the goals of the program even if it didn’t win the contest.

“When we first found the contest we thought, ‘Wow, we think Ninde is a really good example of exactly what they’re looking for.’ One thing as a very small organization — we only have three full-time staff people — one thing that we struggle with is to tell our story, and so for us we thought this would be the thing that pushes us to prioritize. … For us we thought, ‘Well, it would be amazing if we won, but worst case scenario we come out of it with a video that helps us tell our story and helps us recruit future scholars and tutors and share with donors.’”

The Ninde Scholars peer tutor program is an application-based program for talented seventh through twelfth graders in the Oberlin school district, particularly individuals from low-income backgrounds or potential first-generation college students. The organization also provides resources for students who are not Ninde Scholars, such as ACT test prep classes and assistance in filling out FAFSA forms.

Hayes said the program is similar to many others in the nation, but also uniquely tailored to the needs of the Oberlin community. She cited Lorain County’s transportation troubles, since public transit was cut in 2009, as an example. Many students would sign up for the ACT but find it difficult to get to the testing location, so the Ninde Program began providing a bus, complete with care packages, to transport students from Oberlin High School to the ACT site.

Since the program was started in 2005, a total of 67 students have graduated from the program — 93 percent of whom enrolled in college. Out of the 2006 to 2009 high school graduates in the program, 41.3 percent had earned a bachelor’s and 10.3 percent had earned an associate’s degree as of fall 2014. This percent falls far above the 11 percent national average for low-income and first-generation students.

In recent years, the program has grown to its current 43 Ninde Scholars and 22 Oberlin College tutors. Director of the Education Outreach Programs Susan Pavlus emphasized that the Ninde Scholars Program is a town-gown collaboration between the College and local organizations including the Oberlin City School District, the Community Foundation of Lorain County and the Lorain County Urban League.

“All of those partners work together in order to support this program in some way,” Pavlus said. “Without those partners working together, this program is not possible. Without the support of the community, this program is not possible.”