Mokena woman first student to give commencement speech at Roosevelt University
By Ginger Brashinger Correspondent December 12, 2013 7:54PM
Danielle Smith, 21, of Mokena, will give the first student commencement speech in the 68-year history of Roosevelt University in Chicago. | Ginger Brashinger~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 14, 2014 12:00PM
Mokena resident Danielle Smith is a young woman who has achieved a lot of firsts.
Smith, 21, on Friday will become the first student in the 68-year history of Roosevelt University in Chicago to deliver the commencement speech, one that she hopes will inspire her 450 fellow graduates.
She was chosen from 10 nominees. The special-education major’s roles as captain of the school’s first female tennis team, making the dean’s list all seven semesters at the school, earning a degree in special education in fewer than four years, and her involvement as a peer mentor and aide to the disabilities coordinator in the university’s Academic Success Center all served to make the choice a clear one for those who know Smith.
“She always made other students feel valued and important,” Academic Success Center disabilities coordinator Nancy Litke said. “I can tell you that from the minute she walked in (to the center), she just brought a lightness, a joy. She never needed instruction about what to do. I was ready to hand her my keys.”
Smith said it wasn’t a given that she would become a special-education major. In fact, she said her speech will reveal her experiences at Roosevelt University to have been a challenge from the beginning, but it’s also been a place that opened her eyes to the diversity in her “own back yard.”
The “pretty cool quote” Smith will use to open her speech was one of Thomas Jefferson’s sayings, later used by Franklin D. Roosevelt, the university’s namesake along with his wife Eleanor: “When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.”
Smith said, “I thought that really explained my whole experience at Roosevelt.”
When Smith chose Roosevelt University after being offered a spot on its first female tennis team, she had to give up her plan to study to become a Spanish teacher because Spanish was not offered as a major. Adapting to the situation, Smith began listening to those who told her to consider special education as a field of study.
“They were telling me about special education and I thought (I could do it because) I was a pretty patient person,” Smith said. “I had to do 120 field experience hours, so the more I observed and worked with students ... I don’t know, I just fell in love.”
Smith is no stranger to achievement.
She was part of the first graduation class at Lincoln-Way North High School in 2010, ranking No. 7 out of 425 students. She was chosen in her senior year as the first “Miss Phoenix,” and was active in the school musicals, band, honors band, National Honor Society, and the history and Spanish honor societies.
At Roosevelt University, Smith became involved in the orientation of new students, one of four students of 50 chosen to become a certified tour guide; was a member of the Leadership Summit, the entertainment coordinator for the first Relay for Life, and was hired by the university as an athletic peer mentor for freshman athletes.
Some afternoons and weekends, Smith works as a server at her family’s children’s restaurant in Frankfort, Train Car Tommy’s, and she is a volunteer at Parkview Christian Church in Orland Park.
Smith has lived in Mokena since 2004 with her mother, Barbara Smith; stepfather, Frank Passini; and brother David, 20.
She credits her mother, who has raised Smith and her brother since their father’s death 13 years ago, for her success.
“My mom is my rock,” Smith said. “She was my mom and my dad. That’s the reason I am who I am today.”