Committed to Uplifting Community
2018 Convocation and Welcome Day of Service Student Speaker
Good morning, Class of 2022! My name is Crystel Sylvester, and while I could give you my orientation leader introduction, I figure you’ve had enough of single clapping to last you a lifetime.
Like many of you, I came to GW because I was drawn by the wonders of Washington, DC. I grew up in a suburban town in South Carolina, where the most exciting thing to happen is beating the world record for the largest pitcher of sweet tea ever brewed. And while I consider myself lucky to have put down my roots where I did, I wanted to grow elsewhere.
When I got here, I was excited to start on my checklist that I was sure would make me the youngest female tech CEO ever: maintain a competitive GPA, get into an honor society, help run a student organization, have an internship in tech, network with accomplished professors. It was that last point that changed the trajectory of my GW career.
By trying to impress a professor, I wound up doing a project on the southeast quadrant of DC. I didn’t understand how a school like GW, that uses Whole Foods and Panera Bread as a makeshift dining hall, could exist in the same city as 200,000 children experiencing hunger. I had all these statistics on grocery store density and food bank projects, but it didn’t click until I met Katie, a coworker from the nonprofit I work for now.
She showed me around her neighborhood within Anacostia, and I saw firsthand how far you have to go to get quality groceries, and even farther if you even think about organic. While her family doesn’t struggle to eat and she’s in college, she had relied on the resources of our nonprofit to help her get there.
So I adjusted that checklist I mentioned earlier to include: get all of my GW SMARTDC students reading at grade level. The more students I met, the more stories I heard that showed how much our work mattered. The high schooler who didn’t have a coat for one of the worst winters DC has ever experienced. The 8th grader who traveled from Baltimore for our lessons in the hopes of getting into a 4-year university. The 5th grader with undiagnosed autism for several years. The power of education, and a dedicated person with means and time, supported all these students and so many more.
If you’re wondering about the other items on my checklist, I still did all of those, too, and the energy I spent on teaching only helped rather than hurt. Dedication to service is NOT a distraction from self-serving goals. Through teaching, I discovered that I have a talent for putting concepts into words that people far different from me can understand. That talent was validated in the classroom, and helped me narrow down careers. When I took a strengths test in GWSB –sorry for the spoiler alert, GWSB kids –it threw out the words “empathy” and “communication.”
I tell you this because I want you to understand that service doesn’t have to mean doing things you don’t want to do for the sake of logging hours into a timesheet or checking off a box. It can, and should, mean putting our talents to the best use for others. Madeleine L’Engle, the author who wrote A Wrinkle in Time, once said that we don’t get any credit for our talents; it’s how we use them that counts.
I’ve spent the rest of my time at GW trying to figure out what other talents I have and how I can use them for the betterment of a community that I am passionate about. I moved up from one-on-one tutoring to having a classroom of my own and designing a curriculum that I believed mattered. By teaching students native to the District, I learned about the people behind statistics.
So I implore you to think about what your talents are, and how you can use them for others. Can you inspire and organize? Maybe you should be coordinating volunteer teams. Do numbers and puzzles excite you? Maybe you should prepare taxes for vulnerable populations. Does gardening calm you? Maybe you can cultivate fresh, healthy groceries for those living in food deserts.
Whatever it is, just ask yourself: How can I help to the best of my abilities?
Thank you for listening, and have fun today.
Convocation and Welcome Day of Service will take place on Saturday, August 24th, 2019.