Graduation Speakers Vary Widely at Prince William County High Schools

Josh Tetrick
Josh Tetrick
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By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 24, 2009

At the start of the academic year, Stonewall Jackson High School seniors began their search for a graduation speaker with an expected -- and very unrealistic -- slew of suggestions. What about, they asked, Michael Phelps? The eight-time gold medalist at last year's Beijing Olympics is, after all, from Baltimore, which, the students argued, is pretty close to Manassas.

If not Phelps, then, what about . . . the rapper and mogul P. Diddy?

"P. Diddy seemed like more of a joke. Many of them really wanted Michael Phelps, before and after he was in the news," said Adam Ward, a Stonewall Jackson social studies teacher who is the senior class sponsor, referring to the controversial publication of a photo showing Phelps appearing to smoke marijuana. "I said if Michael Phelps would be speaking at any graduation, it would be in Baltimore."

In the end, Stonewall picked a 29-year-old Richmond lawyer named Josh Tetrick who helps corporations invest in energy-efficient projects.

The process by which Stonewall ended up with Tetrick -- who regularly speaks at schools about his aid work in Africa and the need for the emerging generation to do good -- illustrates the emotional and somewhat desultory nature behind schools' tightly controlled graduations. Tetrick was recommended by a senior, who had seen him speak at a Model U.N. conference.

At Prince William's nine other high schools, the range of speakers runs the gamut, revealing odd discrepancies between the nature of each school and the person invited to inspire hundreds of 18-year-olds into life's next phase. So, Brentsville nabbed Tom Davis, a former Northern Virginia congressman in the House of Representatives, but Gar-Field got . . . Tara Wheeler, this year's Miss Virginia? Battlefield scored Betsy Fischer, executive producer for NBC's "Meet the Press," but Woodbridge . . . didn't get anyone? Well, technically, the speaker is the principal, David Huckestein, because, according to the school system, the school "actively decided not to have a guest speaker this year in order to shorten the ceremony."

(Maybe Huckestein has plans immediately following the ceremony? Kidding, just kidding, Principal Huckestein.)

At Stonewall Jackson, it was senior Helena Okolicsanyi who found Tetrick. Okolicsanyi said she attended a Model U.N. conference early this year at George Mason University and heard Tetrick give a life-changing speech about his time working in Africa, helping reduce poverty's effects, as well as boosting education. "A lot of time when people speak about that, they say, 'Oh this is terrible,' but they don't tell you ways of changing things. Right when he spoke, he had such energy," said Okolicsanyi, who started an anti-genocide club at her school and whose father works for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

"He started asking kids, 'Okay, what do you like to do? I'll tell you how you can do it and still make money,' " she recalled. "One girl said she wanted to be a biologist, and he said, 'Well, they're working right now trying to prevent malaria virus from spreading. They really need people like you to help.' Another girl said she wanted to be a history teacher, and he said, 'There's a need for rural teachers in Africa.' "

Several weeks later, she approached Ward, the senior class teacher sponsor, and suggested Tetrick and passed off a recent article he wrote in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Ward was intrigued, and Tetrick accepted his invitation.

Tetrick seems like a natural fit to speak before a class of graduating members of the "millennial generation," which is marked by a passion for public service and social entrepreneurship. Tetrick, a lawyer for McGuireWoods in Richmond, helps companies such as General Electric decide to invest in wind or solar energy projects in emerging markets.

Before he wound up at the law firm, Tetrick let his passions steer him. After high school graduation in 1998, he played football at West Virginia University but soon tired of the game and transferred to Cornell University in New York. He graduated in 2004 and won a Fulbright scholarship that enabled him to work in Nigeria and help kids off the street get schooling.

Later, in fall 2005, he enrolled at the University of Michigan Law School, and instead of spending each summer working at law firms like most of his peers, he went back to Africa. He spent one summer in Kenya, for a U.N. program working with local businesses; his second summer, he ended up in Liberia, helping the government attract clean energy investments.

When he graduated from law school last year, he again eschewed the traditional path and neglected the on-campus law firm interviews. Instead, he called up top law firms to see which would hire him to work in their clean energy practice. "I contacted 25 law firms, and a number of them got back to me," Tetrick recalled. "But one law firm, the one I am with now, called me and said, 'We would like you to lead this practice.' "

Now, Tetrick said, he spends half his time speaking at schools: Georgetown and George Washington universities, the University of Maryland. His themes: "How solving needs can be good for your career. To find meaning and make a difference."

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