When Jaecheol Min left his home in Daegu, South Korea, to attend high school at Lawrence Woodmere Academy, he was worried that he wouldn’t fit in with his American peers.
But as the class valedictorian spoke at his school's commencement ceremony Monday, Min, 19, said it didn’t take long for him to feel at home.
“While my Korean culture is different … I was like every other student, an awkward teenager trying to find his identity,” he said.
During his speech, Min, who is bound for Emory University in Atlanta, poked fun at his differences, stating, “Yes, I have an accent, but ask any New Yorker and they will say people that people from Boston and New Jersey have an accent.”
Summing up his message, he said, “The things that bring us together are much greater than the things that divide us.”
Diversity is a defining trait of Lawrence Woodmere Academy. Among the 37 members of its Class of 2013, 12 hail from countries including Lithuania, Brazil, South Korea, Barbados and, for the first time, China.
“You can be anything here,” said Marjorye Santos, 18, of Sao Paulo, Brazil, who participated in everything from sports to the student newspaper during her time at the school. She plans to study international relations and political science at Hobbart and William Smith Colleges in upstate Geneva.
Her classmate, Ricardine Laventura, 17, of Springfield Gardens, is headed to St. John’s University in Queens to major in foreign languages and minor in international politics with hopes of working as an interpreter for the United Nations.
“It [Lawrence Woodmere Academy] prepares you for the real world, for the diversity and challenges that await us,” she said.
Peter Boneparth, president of Lawrence Woodmere Academy’s Board of Trustees and a 1974 graduate, said the schools is intentionally “color blind, race blind and nationality blind” in order to prepare students to compete in the global economy and foster acceptance.
“The earlier you can instill that understanding and sensitivity, the better the world is going to be,” he added.
As he delivered the commencement address Monday night, former NFL executive and alumnus Robert Wallace Jr., 57, remarked that his graduating class in 1974 was much less diverse. When Wallace Jr., who is African American, enrolled in the school, then called Woodmere Academy, in fourth grade, it was “100-percent white, and mostly Jewish,” he said.
“Your generation does not understand bigotry and hatred,” he told the graduates. “You celebrate and revel in our differences … you understand we need each other.”
He urged the students to continue helping others along their path to success.
“As you climb this ladder of achievement, don’t pull up the ladder behind you,” he said. “Let someone climb up as well. In fact, reach out your arm and give them a hand.”
Saying goodbye to Lawrence Woodmere Academy wasn’t easy for Daniel Fay, 17. After superstorm Sandy flooded his family’s Belle Harbor home, he was displaced for seven months, but the school became his second home as he continued to volunteer with the various clubs he belonged to.
“It was nice to come to school and see everyone you know was OK,” he said. “I’m happy to be moving on but … it’s tough to leave such a great place.”