We are in the midst of commencement season, and of course, every grad has a story. I attended Hunter College graduation in New York City this week — you may have seen that Hillary Clinton was the guest speaker — and Hunter President Jennifer Raab highlighted some stories that were so extraordinary they had the audience roaring with joy.
I’d like to share a few over the coming weeks. More than any cookie-cutter commencement remarks, they show what it really means to follow your dreams, and they provide a snapshot of America’s amazing urban public college students: what they have faced and what they can achieve.
For instance, Libby Pollack.
Libby grew up in an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish home in Brooklyn. There was nothing wrong with her, except one thing: She was burning with curiosity, and in her extremely strict community, young people were not supposed to do anything other than dress modestly, read the holy books and marry one of their own.
But Libby wanted more. She wanted to talk to people outside her circle and read books that weren’t about Jewish topics. She wanted to go to the movies, listen to pop songs and learn science, American history and maybe even a language besides the Yiddish she spoke at home and the smattering of English she learned at her Jewish school. She wanted to be part of the big wide world. Or at least watch a cartoon or two.
But all that was forbidden. So Libby started to sneak off to the public library — a place of sin, according to her sect. At home, she would stare across the street into the apartments of nonreligious neighbors who had the TV on and long to hear what it was saying. Gradually, Libby grew desperate. To live the life she longed for, she had to leave the only one she knew and leap into the secular world.
The landing wasn’t smooth. With her limited education, Libby found low-paying jobs, like seasonal factory work and night shifts in group homes for adults with mental disabilities. At times, she was homeless and hungry.
But at last, she found her way to Footsteps, a unique organization founded by Malkie Schwartz, a young New Yorker who’d also grown up ultra-orthodox and escaped to the secular world. Now, Footsteps helps other young people do the same thing. It helped Libby find her way to community college and then to Hunter, which was like a smorgasbord to a starving person.
She took classes in everything from Russian literature to the African language Twi. She traveled to Europe, South America and Africa. She joined the Greek club. She started a YouTube channel. She even took jazz vocal classes — a girl who’d once been forbidden to sing where men could hear her.
She had to make up for lost time. And she did.
On Wednesday, Libby graduated at age 30 with a degree in psychology. She plans to get a Ph.D. But first, this young woman, who had never taken a class in almost anything other than Judaism until well into her 20s, will spend a year in Latin America teaching English, the language she’d snuck off to read in the Brooklyn library a lifetime ago.