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Herricks graduates get strong messages

Herricks alum Rajeev Goyal tells Peace Corps tale

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Posted: Thursday, June 28, 2012 11:27 am

The Herricks High School class of 2012 experienced all the traditional parts of a graduation ceremony at the school’s 53rd annual commencement last Thursday evening as well as a less traditional message from one of the school’s alumni.

Members of the Herricks High School Band directed by Scott Stickley provided the usual accompaniment to their procession onto the Herricks football field with Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance.” Senior Melissa Reime, a member of the Herricks Chamber Choir, delivered a memorable rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner”.

Inspirational words were provided by district administrators and peers.

“You have achieved remarkable success, but what will bring you success in the world is that light within,” Herricks superintendent of schools John Bierwirth said.

The class of 2012 salutatorian Vance Zuo told the graduating class their high school achievements were “stepping stones” in their life journey.

“No longer will the people making monumental changes be distant figures. They will be us,” Zuo said. “We now have a chance to change the world.”

After cataloguing the changes they have witnessed in their lifetimes, and speaking of the challenges they face in deciding “what type of people we want to be,” class valedictorian Sarah Chapin reminded them that their collegiate journey might seem like a replay of their first steps into a classroom.

“In some ways, we’ll be just as nervous and excited as we were in kindergarten,” she said.

Outgoing Herricks Board of Education trustees Peter Grisalfi and Richard Buckley provided some comedic moments with their Herricks top 10, including “We can throw one heck of a multicultural night” and “Who else has a Scottish mascot with a skirt?”.

But in remarks that departed from the standard graduation address,  Herricks alumnus Rajeev Goyal recounted his unique journey since graduating Herricks in 1997 and issued a challenge to the newest alums.

After graduating from Brown University in 2001 with a degree in English Literature, Goyal joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Namje, a village in the eastern hills of Nepal, to teach English. He recounted how he soon discovered that the lack of progress his young students were making in class stemmed from dehydration maladies and the time they spent carrying water from a stream far below the mountain village.

“The students were all spending several hours each day going for water and they couldn’t do their homework,” he said.

He met with the villagers and realized his real mission would be an expensive engineering proposition to bring water to the village.

“I needed to figure out a way to raise $45,000 to build this water project,” he recalled.

At home in Herricks for a holiday celebration, he said he surprised his parents’ guests - mostly wealthy doctors - with a slide show illustrating the conditions of the village and children’s health problems. After much explanation, and an impassioned plea from his brother, he succeeded in opening the hearts, and checkbooks, of the house guests.

“Within about eight minutes, I was holding $20,000 in checks,” he said, adding that the Peace Corps matched the sum.

When the project was completed the motors to power the pump that would bring the water uphill didn’t come on.

“I got depressed. I was going back to school in a month,” he recalled, knowing his time in Nepal was limited before he returned to the U.S. to attend the New York University School of Law.

But at 6:30 the next morning, he heard a villager yelling, “Bani ayo” (“The water has come”).

Before departing, he told the villagers he could raise money back home from selling the knit hats they made. Soon after his arrival in New York, he said he started receiving shipments of knit hats and ultimately raised $5,000 spending Sundays outside St. Anthony of Padua Church in Greenwich Village selling them.

Four years ago, he took on the challenge of increasing Peace Corps membership in a one-man campaign in which he drove through 12 states.

“I’ll fight for the Peace Corps,” he recalled telling officials in charge of the agency.

He subsequently his lobbying effort to keep raising funds for the people of Namje to Washington, D.C. As a lobbying novice, he quickly learned the best place to button-hole Congressional leaders was outside of the Capitol restrooms, where he would speak to as many as 25 U.S. Senators in a day to enlist them in his cause.

He invoked a line from the I Ching, “The mountains rest on the earth,” to drive home the point of his story.

“If you want to make change in your life, you have to go from the bottom up. The world is a lot more moldable than you think,” he said.

He called leadership “a humbling experience” and exhorted the graduates to stay true to their ideals.

“I hope when you continue in your journey, you stick to what you’re passionate about,” he said. “I’ve stayed young every day by keeping my idealism, my belief.”

The Herricks Chamber Choir sang “Today My Life Begins” and the Herricks High School anthem.

And in the diminishing heat of the early evening shadows, Herricks School Board President Christine Turner and Vice President Richard Buckley presented the graduates with their diplomas.

After the graduates tossed their caps in the air in the traditional spirited moment, someone was heard telling Goyal that he hoped at least one of the graduates had caught the spirit of what he said.

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