Under the tent on the Homewood campus's Keyser quadrangle, some 979 seniors will graduate on Thursday, May 25, each of them about to embark on a unique journey. Here are the stories of four soon-to-be Hopkins graduates, whose next adventures will touch other lives in the Rio Grande River Valley, Eritrea, Korea and Ghana.
Ricky Grisson, chemistry major, Athens, Ga.
When he was in elementary school, growing up around the projects of Athens, Ga., Ricky Grisson and his best friend decided that they would go to college together at Johns Hopkins University and then to medical school, after which they would become famous and important doctors.
And even though his mom had dropped out of high school after having given birth to his sister, and he grew up in neighborhoods where dreams of college and graduate school can seem farfetched, no one ever told Ricky Grisson that his dreams were out of reach.
His determination faltered once, he says, on one horrible night during his freshman year in high school, when his mother was shot seven times by her boyfriend and Grisson found her bleeding in the hallway.
"I was so into the idea of being a doctor at that time--I had learned first aid in ROTC and at the St. Mary's Hospital Explorers Club--and yet I couldn't do anything for the most important person in my world. All I could do is wring out the towels and the washcloth as they filled up the blood. We were a mile away from the hospital, and the ambulance took 45 minutes to arrive. It was a nightmare."
His mother survived the attack and eventually recovered, but for a while the terror and helplessness of that night made Grisson afraid of being a doctor.
This Thursday, May 25, his mother, Linda, and about 30 other proud friends and family from Athens will watch Grisson graduate Phi Beta Kappa from Hopkins. Medical schools actually called him this year asking him to apply, and he has narrowed it down to choosing between Stanford and Harvard, both with scholarships.
But he's asked both schools' permissions for a two-year deferment because he wants to teach underprivileged children through Teach America. Although both medical schools typically allow only a one-year deferment, Harvard already has granted the request, and he's waiting to hear from Stanford. But no matter which medical school he ultimately chooses, next fall he will be teaching chemistry in a low-income high school in the Rio Grande River Valley.
It is something he feels compelled to do, he says, because he knows the difference a caring teacher can make in an at-risk-kid's life.
When he was little, Grisson idolized his older sister Shonda. Spirited and bright, she protected him from bullies and looked out for him. But by the time she reached middle school, Grisson says, the frustration and hurt of not being accepted by her father found its way into the classroom. Shonda was labeled as a kid with a behavioral problem, and, though she had good grades, her teachers became frustrated with her and began to write her off.
"I think to be written off by my father and teachers was really painful for her, and it only got worse in high school," Grisson says. "She is very smart, but she just sort of gave up on school. She got pregnant as a sophomore, and then again as a junior, and that's when she dropped out. Things have been tough for her."
Grisson's school experiences were different. His middle school math teacher, Jeff Weeks, recognized a remarkable talent in math and science and made a special effort to nurture that talent. Weeks kept his eye out for Grisson, coming down hard on him if he thought he was getting involved with the wrong people or situations, encouraging him to get involved in school activities and even letting him teach the class on occasion. When it came time for Grisson to leave middle school, Weeks called math teacher Ann Brightwell, who ran the academic team at Clark Central High School, and told her about this special kid. She would become one of the Grisson family's dearest friends.
"She was really there for my family," Grisson says. "They tell teachers not to get too personal with the students, but she came to our house a lot to let my mom know she was there for us. It meant a lot to my mom. With everything my family was going through during those times--my mother's shooting, my sister's pregnancies, the times when we had no money--Mrs. Brightwell was sometimes like the most stable thing in my life. She was always there for me to talk to, she made me work much harder than everyone else, she helped me apply to colleges, she even came to Baltimore with my Mom and me to check out Hopkins. I would not be in the position I am in now--being able to choose between medical schools--if it weren't for Mrs. Brightwell and the other teachers and coaches who stuck their necks out for me and had high expectations of me." What she provided to Grisson, Brightwell says, was simply guidance in the process of achieving his goals.
"Ricky has one strong, proud mama," says Brightwell by phone from Atlanta. "She's worked hard. There have been some tough, lean times for that family, and through it all she's just soldiered on. I looked at my role as like a second mama to him. I helped him figure out how to succeed in school and get into college.
"But Ricky was the kind of student every teacher is dying to get their hands on," she continues. "He was like a sponge ... just wanted to soak up as much information and get as much out of school as he could. This is such a wonderful time, and I'm proud of him. So, even though it lands smack in the middle of exam week here, and I've got to travel all the way to Baltimore, this is one college commencement ceremony I would never miss."
Bisrat Abraham, public
health major, Baltimore
Before Bisrat Abraham was born, her father had to leave his pregnant wife and flee his native Eritrea for the United States. Their country was in the midst of war, fighting to split with Ethiopia, and because he was an Eritrean intellectual, her father was in danger. Three months after Abraham was born, her mother--also in danger--tried to escape but was arrested and jailed for several months. She finally escaped the country when Abraham was 3. Raised until she was 6 by her grandparents and large, extended family in Eritrea, Abraham says that despite the turmoil, her early childhood was a happy one. At 6 she was sent to America, a move she says was heartbreaking at the time.
She would grow into a poised and intellectual American, a scholar at a prestigious Baltimore girls' school and an active and successful college student at Hopkins. She has returned to Eritrea twice, the first time in 1992, a year after it gained its independence; she found the mood of the country nearly euphoric, and she was struck by its promise. But things have changed: Border disputes between the two feuding countries once again threaten to drain both of their youth and economy.
This summer, Abraham will return as an adult to her homeland. Winner of a Fulbright research award, she will put her public health major to work, studying the health of mothers and children in Eritrean refugee camps.
Kimara Glaser-Kirschenbaum, psychology and anthropology major, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Born in Seoul, Korea, Kimara Glaser-Kirschenbaum was adopted by an American couple when she was 7 months old. Her parents, who divorced when she was 5, worked hard to make her comfortable with her cultural heritage. She grew up in a small, mostly white upstate New York town, so it was during the summers she spent at a camp for adopted Korean children that she learned the most about her roots. But despite those summers spent with kids like her, Glaser-Kirschenbaum's Korean origin, so obvious every time she looked in the mirror, was one of her biggest mysteries.
When she was about 15, she traveled with her mother and a group to Seoul, where she met women living in a shelter for unwed mothers.
"We searched for her, but we couldn't find my birth mother," Glaser-Kirschenbaum says. "But when I talked to those women who were all giving their babies up for adoption, I felt like I was talking to her. And I could tell it made a big difference for them to see us and how happy and healthy we all were."
While at Hopkins, Glaser-Kirschenbaum has kept busy with two majors, graduating a year early, and involvement in different campus and outreach groups. But her most powerful experience, she says, has been her work twice a week in a nearby halfway house for HIV babies. She says she is always surprised at the depth of emotion they stir in her and that she thinks being with them fills a nameless sort of need to know her own beginnings.
So that is exactly what she is going to do. This summer, Glaser-Kirschenbaum will return to Korea one more time; she's received a Fulbright grant to teach in Seoul for a year. While she's teaching, she plans to work in a home for unwed mothers or an orphanage, even if it means volunteering to clean the place, she says.
Susan Gagliardi, geography and history of art major, Athol, Mass.
Susan Gagliardi's mother, formerly an educator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and later owner of an antiques business, fostered in her daughter a love for museums and works of art. The Phillips Exeter graduate had barely unpacked her bags as a freshman at Hopkins when she applied for a job at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The only opening at the BMA was catalog work under the guidance of Fred Lamp, curator of the Department of the Art of Africa, Asia, the Americas and Oceania.
The African art captivated Gagliardi, and she began to focus her studies on the art of Ghana. She became an exchange student in that country for a semester during her junior year and worked in the National Museum in Accra, doing much-needed catalog work.
This summer, with a Fulbright research grant, Gagliardi will return to Ghana for a year. She will spend the first several months working in the National Museum and others, cataloging artifacts of the Lobi, a group of rural, migratory people. During the second half of that year, she will live in a Lobi village in the northwest region to study how the Lobi people create shrines, which, when activated by the bateba statue, are believed to be directly connected to a nature spirit. Gagliardi hopes to be able to bring back one of these shrines to the BMA.