April 25, 2017 | By Chuck Carlson
They come from different backgrounds with different viewpoints and different specialties.
But when Jess Womack, '65; Linda Yonke, '75; and Michael Milkie speak to Albion College's Class of 2017 at Commencement on Saturday, May 6, their messages could not be more similar.
"It's the idea of service and meaning and hope that are an important part of life, and I'm hoping the students will think about that," said Yonke, superintendent of 4,200-student New Trier Township High School District 203 in suburban Chicago. "And I'd be talking to the faculty, too. They're in this profession because of a profound sense of hope for the future."
It's a message relayed as well by Milkie, who in 1999 founded, with his then fiancée and now wife Tonya Hernandez, the Noble Street Charter School to provide educational opportunities for low-income families.
"I'll tell [the Albion graduates] that when I was in their shoes, I had no idea I'd go into education," said Milkie, whose network now encompasses 17 high-performing high schools serving 12,000 Chicago students, a growing number of whom have continued their education at Albion. "It just came to me. I'm going to say, A) You can still change your mind; and B) Be ready for anything."
Womack is an Albion native who graduated from Albion College with degrees in biology and pre-med. He then served two years in Kenya as part of the Peace Corps; when he came back to the States he was drafted into the Army, where he served in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division. He returned and earned his law degree from the University of Michigan, started his career at Ford Motor Company, and then spent 18 years at Atlantic Richfield as senior corporate counsel for environmental affairs.
He then moved on to become deputy general counsel and later general counsel of the Los Angeles Unified School District before becoming inspector general in 2010.
He joined the board of Green Dot Schools, a nonprofit charter school program formed in 1999 to provide public education to students and prepare them for college. He was also a member of the College's Board of Trustees and received the Distinguished Alumni Award in 2010.
His message? Education will help students deal ith the issues that will arise in their lifetime.
"Think of changing the world in big and small ways," he said.
Commencement will take place from the steps of Kresge Gymnasium on the College Quadrangle. The May 6 ceremony begins at 1 p.m., with the Processional starting at 12:45 p.m.
It is, perhaps, a bit unusual for Commencement to feature three speakers, but President Mauri Ditzler said each person brings a unique and timely message for today's graduates.
"Jess, Linda and Michael have all talked about the joys of transforming lives and, through that, changing the world," he said. "Those are also the things we work on at Albion. Their message is that excellence, care and individual attention always work, regardless of the environment. We're excited for them to bring that enduring message to Albion."
Yonke is a native of Kankakee, Ill., who majored in history at Albion but earned enough credits to eventually gain her teaching certificate. She has spent her entire career in education, first as a high school English teacher and later as principal of York Community High School in Elmhurst, Ill.
She was then named assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction at New Trier in Winnetka, Ill., one of the leading public school districts in the country. In 2006, she was named the district's first female superintendent.
For her, public schools remain the backbone of American education.
"I feel a compulsion to put in a word for public schools," she said. "We're here to educate every single child, no matter their background. They don't get kicked out if they don't fit in. Every student struggles at some time in their life, whether it's academic or family. We have to find the right way to support our kids. It's a commitment we have. And it's a commitment I heard [President Ditzler] describe about Albion."
And it's a commitment Yonke has happily undertaken for 41 years.
"You don't go into education to make money," she said. "You go in believing that kids can learn, can be inspired and can grow. And you search for ways to touch and inspire them."
Womack has been involved in education since 1954 and his latest endeavor, on the board of Green Dot, was a satisfying experience.
"I was drawn to Green Dot because I was so struck by its mission," he said. "I got to Green Dot and I saw these highly dedicated young people on the staff and in the classroom. They were helping to transform lives of underprivileged people, and I wanted to be a part of that."
Milkie earned his degrees in Russian and economics at Indiana University and hoped to one day work in government. He changed course when he began substitute teaching while waiting for other job opportunities. It eventually became a career.
"It's been an unexpected journey," he said. "I would encourage [Albion] seniors by telling them the future can hold surprises, and I'd also say how important education is to students to changing lives. We think it has a potential to change everyone's life, but especially for the disadvantaged. It really can be a matter of life and death."
When the Noble Network began partnering with the College to bring qualified students from inner-city Chicago to Albion, it was an opportunity for everyone. Milkie said by this fall there will be nearly 100 Noble students on campus.
"It's definitely exceeded expectations," he said. "It's a great relationship."
Albion College's Commencement is free and open to the public. For more information about Commencement, contact the Office of College Events at 517/629-0448.