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Valedictorians share inspiration, tips

From left to right: Elizabeth Bonker, Emily Curran, Sofia Frasz, Jessika Linnemeyer, Charlie Mellin

Elizabeth Bonker

My mission in life is to ensure communication is available to all non-speakers with autism. Rollins faculty, administration, and students have supported me during my four years studying social innovation and English so I can be an effective advocate. Dr. Jay encouraged my interest in public policy and Professor Balzac wrote a letter to Representative Stephanie Murphy about my advocacy work. 

My greatest inspiration has come from my time on Capitol Hill advocating for non-speakers. In the summer of 2019, Representative Murphy’s office arranged meetings for me with a dozen lawmakers and their staff. I came ready to speak with them about one issue: GED access. Pearson Corporation administers the GED and routinely denies the accommodations typers need to take the GED and receive a high school equivalency diploma. Senator Rick Scott believed in my cause and his staff supported my discussions with Pearson Corporation to allow these needed accommodations. 

Being honored as a valedictorian means a lot to me because I am trying to raise academic expectations for all non-speakers with autism. After I graduate, I will continue my advocacy work through my new nonprofit, Communication 4 ALL. We will use public policy, music, and social media to change the way the world sees non-speakers. Additionally, we will work to ensure all non-speaking students have effective communication in school, a right guaranteed to them in the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

My advice to current undergraduates would be to remember our motto: Life is for Service. Find your passion and use it to serve others who are not as fortunate as we are. Also, it helps to study! 

Seriously, we have such a rich environment for learning here at Rollins, with small class sizes and caring professors. I have gotten to know all my professors by meeting with them outside of class. They have taken the time to get to know me despite the slowness of my one-finger typing. Every class has been incorporated into my life mission, from anthropology to education to theater to English to statistics to film. I’m going to greatly miss the kindness and support I have received at Rollins. 

My fellow students: Appreciate these four special years in this special place—it will go by quickly.

Elizabeth Bonker

Emily Curran

My RCC class, “Inequality 101: Race, Class, Gender, and Society,” challenged me to think critically about how Rollins, and other schools, reproduce social inequalities. The course gave me the vocabulary I was searching for to reflect on my own experiences growing up in a privileged setting. Beyond inspiring me to seek opportunities that pushed Rollins to become a more equitable campus, my RCC introduced me to my advisor and mentor, Dr. Armenia. During my four years at Rollins, she has challenged me to question the status quo by engaging empirically with sociology and pursuing competitive research opportunities that use the discipline to advance social change. Her mentorship has played a critical role in preparing me to begin my studies as a sociology PhD student at UPenn in the fall. More importantly, under her guidance, Dr. Armenia has shaped me into a better person who is more prepared to lead with grace and strength.  

Outside of the classroom, I have been influenced significantly by my involvement in the Bonner Leaders program. Directed by Bailey Clark in the Center for Leadership & Community Engagement (CLCE), the Bonner Program connected me with the Holocaust Center, my primary community partner over my tenure in the program. Guided by their mission to build a just and caring community, free of all forms of antisemitism and bigotry, their staff ⁠— including Lisa Bachman, Serena Ahmed, Lua Hancock, Jennifer Kupper, and many others⁠ — have invested their time and expertise to support my growth as a change agent in our community. They trusted me to chair the Take Action Institute, a resource center that equips high school and college students with the tools and networks needed to make transformational change in their communities. Through my experience working with a team of powerful students to plan and execute our inaugural 400-person conference in January, I learned how powerful we can be when we join together in the spirit of collective action.

Being selected as a valedictorian for the Rollins College Class of 2022 is a testament to the culture of collaboration, mentorship, and holistic support that exists at Rollins. Although this honor was achieved because of my intellectual curiosity and passion for learning, it was truly a team effort. With support from Dr. Armenia, Bailey Clark, the team at the Holocaust Center, my peers, and the many staff members at Rollins who support the college’s operations, I was able to engage deeply in my course materials and immerse myself in the pursuit of knowledge. I am grateful for this recognition, and encourage all underclassmen at Rollins to find community with their peers, professors, staff, and people off-campus who support their goals and challenge them to think critically about the institutional context that surrounds them.

Emily Curran

Sofia Frasz

I have worked hard these four years to achieve my goal of being a valedictorian. I know that it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, but it feels great to have set a specific goal and achieved it. Ultimately, that is what this means to me. My professors’ feedback and my goal of getting into law school motivated me to do my best in every class, and I am happy to see that it paid off. I think that my pursuit of this honor had a major impact on my acceptance into law school, and it has inspired me to continue striving to do my best in the next phase of my education path. I feel confident that if I could achieve my academic goals at Rollins, then I can continue to achieve them elsewhere.

If I were to advise underclassmen who hope to achieve a similar goal, I would add that it’s not only hard work that matters, but smart work. Manage your time well and don’t get involved in too many things all at once. It may be tempting to spread your time thin between various different activities all at the same time, but it’s important to learn to prioritize what matters to you in order to do your best socially, academically, and personally. I probably would not have become a valedictorian if I had not carved out time for myself while balancing academics, work, and campus organizations. Don’t underestimate the importance of slowing down and enjoying time with your friends or even just on your own, because that is what will really make your college experience memorable, worthwhile, and manageable. I can guarantee that you will learn as much from your peers as you will from your classes—if you are open to learning from them. Balance is critical at college and through life in general, because you will not achieve your goals in one area if you are not taking care of yourself in other ways. Grades are important, but they are just one part of your Rollins experience; make the most of it!

Sofia Frasz

Jessika Linnemeyer

I am honored to be one of the valedictorians of the Rollins College Class of 2022. Our class has faced what feels like insurmountable circumstances that most college students will never know. However, I constantly watched my peers find a way to live in community, make lasting changes, and pursue their dreams. Therefore, I believe this award is a direct reflection of the culture that exists around this campus, which inspired me to embrace challenges as they came each day. While this award is partly a product of hard work, commitment, and sacrifice, it belongs to so many more people than just myself. I would not be where I am today if it were not for my family, friends, professors, and coaches who simultaneously supported me and pushed me to become the best version of myself. 

Achieving valedictorian is proof that you are capable of anything that you set your mind to. It sounds cliché, but as a student-athlete, female science major, and an involved community member attending school across the country from my hometown, my freshman self would have never thought I could have accomplished this. 

Rollins College is an academically rigorous school that demands high-quality work from students. I am extremely grateful for this experience because it has propelled me beyond my perceived limitations and forced me to grow into the person I am today. In fact, I believe that learning how to balance and excel in each of these areas instilled in me the character and work ethic that allowed me to be accepted into my dream graduate program. 

To my fellow science majors, student-athletes, and all underclassmen, my advice is to chase your dreams wholeheartedly. No matter how intimidating or unachievable it may seem, do not waiver because it is possible and worth it. You will never know what you could have accomplished if you don’t give your all every day. Additionally, don’t be afraid to fail along the way. Rather, embrace the learning process and allow yourself to change in ways that make you stronger. 

I am forever indebted to the Rollins College community for giving me four of the most memorable, challenging, and best years of my life. I am humbled to be one of the valedictorians of the Rollins College Class of 2022 and will carry the remarkable journey and lessons that I learned with me for the rest of my life. 

Jessika Linnemeyer

Charlie Mellin

Honestly, before I transferred here to Rollins, I was a loser. Every aspect of my life was going wrong, and frankly, it was all my fault. I remember my last day in Milwaukee: hanging out with my closest friends, telling them that I was going to get a 4.0 my first semester, and proceeding to hear them burst into laughter. In hindsight, while it bothered me that my closest friends did not believe in me, what was worse was that I understood they were right. At that point in my life, I had not shown any reason to substantiate belief in my own success at any endeavor. That sucked. So, I have used that awful feeling as a means for motivation at every turn. 

I remember repeating that moment in my head during my first semester as I studied 37 hours for a psychology exam that I had to nail to get the first 4.0. I remember repeating that moment in my head as I viewed my grade on the test and realized that if I had gotten one more multiple-choice question wrong, I would have gotten an “A-” and thus, failed to achieve my goal. Every step of the way, I repeated that moment in my head, recalled how much it sucked, and did whatever it took to not be in that position. I guess it worked, and I will be the first to admit that it feels quite good to laugh at the fact that my seemingly absurd prediction was right, many times over. 

For me, this honor means that I can go to sleep knowing I got the job done. For the time being, I will bask in this sense of fulfillment, but after graduation, it’s time to move onto the next thing. I dream of being a professional writer. Given that I am an English major, the work required to achieve this honor has certainly enabled me to accrue pivotal techniques and insight from my brilliant professors (special shout out to Dr. Jones). However, the mere title itself will not sell books. I am currently just like every other kid dreaming of being a writer: a starry-eyed creative that has not made it, yet.

In terms of the advice I would offer underclassmen: we all have a voice in our head guiding us astray. That voice tells you to skip class and sleep in, to dismiss your individuality for fear of not fitting in, to not pursue challenging endeavors, to perform your responsibilities tomorrow, and to waste the gift of life. Essentially, that voice tells you that you are not good enough. While we all succumb to this voice at times, allowing it to dominate will inevitably steer you toward misery. So, as often as possible, do not listen to that voice.

Charlie Mellin

The opinions on this page do not necessarily reflect those of The Sandspur or Rollins College.

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