Meet the student commencement speakers

May 1, 2019

Two graduating seniors were selected to address their fellow Class of 2019 graduates during the College of Education undergraduate commencement ceremony on May 5 at the Breslin Center.

Jessica Kwalli, a Kinesiology major from Southfield, Mich., and Andrew Drenth, an Education major from East Jordan, Mich., will each take the stage to reflect on their experiences and perspectives as Spartans before receiving their diplomas. And like many of their peers, dozens of their family members will be there to celebrate the moment.

So how did they reach this point, from the moment they first set foot on campus? We sat down with them to learn their stories.

Spartans overcome

During Jessica Kwalli’s junior year in high school—just as she was applying to college—her family lost everything in a fire.

Kwalli managed her academic responsibilities despite the turmoil and was admitted to Michigan State University. She was also selected to be part of the first cohort of Dow STEM Scholars, a program to support success for students majoring in science, technology, engineering and math related fields.

Kwalli planned to go into nursing. When she learned more about Kinesiology, she saw it was a different pathway with potential to build her dreams of working in health care.

“Since I’ve been in KIN, my experience has been great,” said Kwalli. “I realized there were a lot of different avenues I could take.”

Kwalli spent her senior year working as a technician at Origami Brain Injury Rehabilitation Center, where she was exposed to fields such as physical therapy and pharmacy that contribute to patient care. She also had a research experience through a program of the MSU College of Human Medicine, through which she studied and presented on the prevalence of eating disorders in the military.

Following graduation, she hopes to work in patient care in some capacity and later apply to graduate school.

By overcoming her own challenges along the way, Kwalli made the most of what MSU had to offer. But she also gave back to other students who could benefit from gaining resources and relationships.

Kwalli helped run workshops for young girls in Detroit through the Crowning Young Queens organization, assisted the MSU Advantage program that helps minorities navigate their freshman year and became the lead mentor for peers in Dow STEM Scholars.

From day-to-day issues like making it to early classes on little sleep, to major personal and academic setbacks she has seen Spartans go through, Kwalli plans to speak about what “Spartans Will.” means to her.

“I would say from being here that that phrase is true, regardless of the challenges we face,” she said. “Spartans are very ambitious. We get the job done.”

Kwalli received the Alumni Kinesiology Internship Scholarship from the College of Education Alumni Board during her senior year.

Spartans transform

“Coming to MSU was a culture shift in a lot of ways,” said Andrew Drenth. He grew up in a small town in Northern Michigan, graduating with just 74 students.

Drenth enrolled in the Global Educators Cohort Program (GECP) in the College of Education, not knowing what to expect, starting freshman year. Four years after being immersed in a campus of 50,000 and its surrounding community, he not only sees himself—but the world—much differently.

“When I came, I viewed education as impacting lives of individual people,” said Drenth, who first became interested in teaching through his high school experience helping with an elementary basketball camp.

“And that is true. But being at MSU showed me that education is a lot more powerful … There’s a level of community and society development that also comes with education. And that is super exciting to me.”

In one of his field experiences, Drenth spent time tutoring refugee teenagers who came, unaccompanied, to the United States from places such as Guatemala to receive a better life. He also assisted in a Lansing fourth-grade class in which the majority of students speak languages other than English at home.

Last summer, Drenth participated in the Urban Immersion Fellowship for teacher education students Detroit. While teaching in a day camp, he saw how what he had learned in courses about community development and cultural relevancy came to life in urban settings. And he felt a clear direction for his career.

After completing the fifth-year teaching internship next year in the Detroit Public Schools Community District, Drenth intends to remain a teacher in the city. He is especially interested in creating positive perspectives about math learning.

“For the sake of seeing communities improved and families empowered, I would like to teach in an area that may be traditionally under-represented, but where there is a tight level of community and where education is appreciated,” he said.

“We are not only teaching for ourselves but for the growth of 25 to 30 children a year, and those are just the kids in your classroom.”

Drenth received three scholarships from the College of Education while a student: the Dr. Shirley H. Brehm Endowed Scholarship in Teacher Education, the Dortha E. and John D. Withrow Endowed Scholarship in Education and the Woodrow Wilson, Sr. and Lillie B. Wilson Endowed Scholarship in Education.

About commencement

This year, there are 528 graduating seniors in the MSU College of Education, which includes majors in Kinesiology and Athletic Training, Elementary Education and Special Education. In addition, 120 graduates are Secondary Education students with majors in their teaching fields.

For more details on the events, visit the Commencements webpage.