DUBOIS – A total of 50 students became Penn State DuBois alumni during fall commencement ceremonies Thursday evening in Hiller Auditorium.
Robert Loeb, associate professor of biology and forestry at Penn State DuBois, as well as the 2012-13 DuBois Educational Foundation Educator of the Year, offered the commencement address.
“I want to extend my hardiest congratulations to each and every graduate at our ceremony this evening. You have devoted years to your education and achieved well in many important and rigorous learning experiences that comprise the degree requirements of our internationally esteemed research university,” Loeb said.
“I sincerely believe that tonight’s ceremony recognizes that you have gained more than knowledge and intellectual sophistication. You have grown both personally and in regard to your status in our society.”
Loeb carried the message of education’s true value throughout his commencement speech. The inspiration for his speech was a person who has also been a great inspiration in his life and career: Blanca Carmen Alvarez, an educator who became a role model for Loeb during his youth. He told Alvarez’s story of rising from poverty, completing her own education, then using her own education and experiences to help others do the same.
“Blanca was born in 1917 in a neighborhood of New York City appropriately called Hell’s Kitchen,” Loeb said. “As a child she walked streets populated by working poor immigrants like her parents, and more dangerously the gangsters who were trying to hide out after committing crimes. The only bastion of safety and hope in the neighborhood was Hartley House.”
Loeb explained that the Hartley House, a settlement house for youth, would become the center of the young Alvarez’s world; a safe place where she first received assistance in fitting into American culture and encouragement to pursue education. She went on to earn a baccalaureate degree in Chemistry and master’s in elementary education at Hunter College in New York City. She wrote her Master’s thesis based on her own life experience at Hartley House.
“Perhaps you have heard of the modern term for the conceptual framework she described,” Loeb said. “Today we call the program Head Start.”
Loeb also highlighted a friendship Alvarez told him of; one that she formed with a fellow chemistry student as an undergraduate. She and her friend, Alma, would remain best friends for life, due to a relationship forged through common struggles and accomplishments in the classrooms and laboratories.
Alvarez then entered the workforce as an international sales agent for an ink company, using her knowledge of chemistry to inform clients about what they were buying. This lasted only a decade Loeb said, until Alvarez started a family, and decided to offer her children a better life. She and her husband relocated to a then more rural area of New York City. As fate would have it, a low income housing complex would be built next door some time later, complete with its own school. This is where Alvarez found her true calling once again.
“Forever seeing a silver lining in a storm cloud, she realized her master’s education could be put to good use as teacher in the new elementary school built into the housing complex,” Loeb said. “For the rest of her career, she taught the poorest children of New York City during the school year in the elementary school and during the summers in the local community center.”
Loeb explained that he experienced Alvarez’s impact as a teacher first-hand, as one of her students in the third grade, and sharpened his craft as an educator under her tutelage. Then, in a surprise ending, he revealed that Alvarez was his own mother.
Loeb concluded by expressing his hope that the story of his role model could inspire the graduates in the room the way it inspired him.
“I hope each of you take away a few lessons from the story of my role model,” Loeb said. “First, regardless of what place you come from, a great education as you have had at Penn State DuBois can empower to overcome the challenges in your life. Second, keep the friends you have made at Penn State DuBois, no greater bonds are formed than from the crucible of a shared education. Third, understand that you having an alma mater is not an abstraction, Penn State DuBois stands ready to help you advance in your life as you grasp new opportunities.”