High school students participating in the Wake Forest Summer Immersion Program — designed for those interested in business or medicine — did not just benefit from guest lecturers and fieldtrips but also from the mentorship of Program Director Donovan Livingston, the recent graduate of the Harvard School of Education whose graduation speech, “Lift Off,” in May of this year has gone viral and been labeled by many as the best graduation speech of 2016.
Livingston’s speech has inspired students and educators worldwide, and his mere presence on Wake Forest’s campus enriched the lives of each of the participants of the Summer Immersion Program. The Old Gold & Black was able to catch up with Livingston to learn more about his speech and experience at Wake Forest.
What was the motivation behind your speech? What message did you hope to deliver?
The speech was motivated by my experiences in education as a college adviser, teacher and coach, and more recently, my experience at Harvard. I was part of a vibrant community of scholars committed to the work of elevating marginalized voices in education. My experiences working alongside social justice organizations like the Black Student Association, Communidad Latina at HGSE and similar organizations at Harvard Law School and the Kennedy School of Government provided me with the confidence to both laud and critique the condition of education in America.
“Lift Off” was intended to further the dialogue on racial inequality and what it looks like in our schools. I wanted to discuss the gross overreliance on standardized and culturally biased measures of achievement we ascribe to students, juxtaposed by the psychological, social and emotional value elevating student voice through curriculum and policy reform.
Simply put, I wanted to introduce to some, and reemphasize to others, the value of tapping into students’ personal experiences to stimulate learning and academic achievement. I hoped the poem would serve as a rallying cry for educators — an impassioned call to action — that would resonate with them as well as their students.
How did you find out about the position at Wake Forest for the Summer Immersion Program?
My wife Lauren is pursuing her MD/PhD in the Wake Forest School of Medicine. Because our wedding took place a mere two weeks before I moved to Cambridge, I was anxious to return North Carolina. In March of 2016, I began looking for summer positions that would allow for a manageable transition from Harvard to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where I am currently enrolled in the PhD program for Educational Leadership & Cultural Foundations. Therefore, I was looking for a position that could serve as a bridge — a continuation of my work in college access, while simultaneously allowing me to chart a new path in a place I call home. One might say my heart led me to Wake Forest. When I told Lauren about the Program Manager posting on the Wake Forest website, we both hoped it would pan out the way it did. Not only was I able to do the work I love, but I did so alongside the person I love, which has made my Wake Forest experience all the more meaningful.
Why was Wake Forest and Winston-Salem an attractive destination for you?
I knew I was in the right place when I learned of Wake Forest’s motto “Pro Humanitate.” With Lauren and I being connected to both Duke and UNC, respectively, I had very few experiences with Wake Forest beyond the occasional clash in the ACC. Unlike other institutions I’ve served — as student or staff member — Wake Forest University and its unwavering commitment to uplifting humanity radiates throughout all of levels of the institution.
The alumni, the undergraduates, the dining and custodial staff and everyone affiliated with the Wake Forest moniker worked tirelessly to fulfill the divine purpose of the university. The university has an unspoken empathy that lives within the members of the community. Though many institutions speak of diversity, inclusion, service and social justice. Deacons are adept at practicing what you preach.
What did you enjoy most about the Summer Immersion Program? Why are you passionate about pre-college programs?
The Summer Immersion Program is special because it provides students with a unique hands-on experience grounded in Wake Forest’s world-class resources in business and medicine. Rather than imploring students to think about what they hope to be when they grow up, the Summer Immersion Program begs the question, “What can I become today?”
There is immense value in pre-college exposure to careers. Students left the program feeling motivated and deeply connected to their long-term goals. In addition, the residential component of the program provided students with a glimpse into campus life at Wake Forest. Combined, these factors make for a meaningful pre-college experience that increases a student’s likelihood of pursuing higher education.
I especially enjoyed working alongside some insanely awesome Wake Forest undergraduates who served as phenomenal ambassadors to the institution. It’s safe to say my passion for pre-college programs is derived from the mentorship that happens. When removed from the formality of a traditional classroom setting, I have a chance to connect with students on a personal level — learning about the vision, values and expectations for a purposeful existence. Therein lies the reason I love what I do.
What are you doing now and what are your plans for the future?
In addition to being a full-time PhD student in the Educational Leadership & Cultural Foundations program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, I began a full-time position as Assistant Director for Tutoring Services in the Student Success Center. The program I work with serves first-generation college students, Pell Grant recipients and those with academic need. Essentially, I am training tutors — undergraduates, graduate students and alums — to work with students — pairing them according to their discipline.
Having worked for the past seven years in advisory roles with first-generation, low-income and traditionally underrepresented students in higher education, and helping them to navigate the college admissions process, I am thrilled to finally conduct programming that ensures their success throughout their college experience. In the future, I hope to become a college faculty member, teaching courses in or relating to education, race, ethnicity, gender and income inequality. My research is primarily concerned with emotional intelligence and the role it plays in college transition and completion. More broadly, I want to know how institutions of education can be better designed to support the emotional development of students across race/ethnicity, class and gender.
Do you see yourself being connected to Wake Forest in any way in the future?
Given my experiences with Wake Forest, albeit brief, I will always feel connected to the university and its divine mission. For that reason, I look forward to what the future holds.