When I was in Bangkok a few weeks ago at the NESA (Near East South Asia Council of Overseas Schools) conference, I met an extraordinary young award recipient from the American International School -- Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. Karen Grace received the Stanley Haas/Luke Hansen Student Award as a student who displays "consistency, persistence, willingness to take risks, acceptance of other cultures and points of view and a genuine interest in and commitment to the welfare of others." The Stanley Haas/Luke Hansen student award shares the names of Stanley Haas, the late executive director of NESA and Luke Hansen, a remarkable middle school student who died in an accident.
At a time when students are commonly awarded for taking AP classes, getting a 4.0, and getting high scores on standardized tests, eighth-grader Karen Grace was awarded for her strength of character. Karen Grace opened her acceptance speech, stating:
My family and I were so amazed to find out that there is an award out there, given on character and not on grades. Competing towards the good of mankind is the most positive and sensible idea anyone could come across.
Karen Grace also attends a school that puts forth in their mission their high academic standards and college prep curriculum, as well as their high standards to teach their youth to be world-class citizens. On their website, the American International School -- Riyadh states their mission:
As a school committed to excellence, we will educate and inspire our students to be responsible, productive and ethical world citizens with skills and passions to think critically, reason critically communicate effectively and learn continuously. We will accomplish this in an American educational environment characterized by high measurable standards and a clearly defined, appropriately interrelated college preparatory curriculum, implemented by a superior staff in partnership with students, parents and the community.
While the SAT is being revamped and employers are asking what qualities college graduates need to be work-ready in the United States and abroad, Karen Grace's speech brings up the question of character -- who are we developing students to become as people -- and what reinforcements are we emphasizing to promote those qualities? What does the world gain when a middle school student has the insight, as Karen Grace did, "I am convinced that reaching out to others reflects positively back on me. I have noticed that in being kind to others, I am in return being kind to myself."
Karen Grace finished her speech with a powerful vision of our global society:
At my school, students and teachers come from different parts of the world. Such a blessing! A great opportunity to learn about different traditions and cultures. We share experiences and talk with such pride and joy about the places we come from. It doesn't matter whether my classmate is from Singapore or my teacher is from the United States or my best friend is from Pakistan. We are all from Planet Earth!
We all come from the same planet and the same sun shines on us every day. The same moon and the same stars brighten our nights. We are all one!
At home, at school and everywhere I go, I carry my beliefs and attitudes with me. Therefore, if you ask me if I have done anything special for my family, my school or my society that could actually stand out, I could honestly say, nothing much. Certainly nothing that could officially be written down on paper, nor placed on the wall of fame. But doing my best at reaching out to others and respecting and appreciating all and everything on Earth is all that I do and all that I will always do. It is a vow that I will always silently keep.
She ended her insightful speech which demonstrated wisdom, maturity, modesty, humility and vision with a quote from Charlie Chaplin:
We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness.
If students like Karen Grace can be strong and wise enough to define themselves through respect for themselves, service to others and not just by their grades and test scores, we will have many more graduates from high school and college who know how to harness their gifts, talents and knowledge in the world. We will have lower rates of depression, anxiety and apathy among teenagers. Let's start to focus on and reinforce the whole student in and out of school -- in their hearts as well as minds. Thank you, Karen Grace, for showing the adults who lead educational initiatives around the world, one of the most important lessons of all. May you continue to inspire people of all ages to do their best and be their best.