JOHNSON - Luma Mufleh recalls nodding off as the commencement speaker droned on at her Smith College graduation ceremony 10 years ago. Mufleh herself, the head of an unusual boys' soccer program in Georgia, is determined to inspire, not tire, listeners when she delivers the commencement address at Johnson State College on May 19.
"I want to tell personal stories," the 31-year-old Jordanian says of the speech she is still composing. "I want to connect and encourage people to do things they may never have thought they could do."
She'll probably succeed, judging from The New York Times' account of Mufleh's own story. That front-page feature last January was what prompted JSC to invite Mufleh to speak to its 388 graduating seniors.
Mufleh volunteered three years ago to coach the Fugees, a set of three boys' soccer teams. Grouped by ages, which range from 9 to 17, the teams consist entirely of refugees from shattered countries such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, Congo, Iraq, Somalia and Sudan.
Coach Luma, as she is known to the Fugees and their parents, recruited players in the small town of Clarkston, Georgia, by circulating flyers in Arabic, French and Vietnamese as well as English. Refugees drawn by the availability of affordable housing and proximity to jobs in Atlanta have transformed Clarkston into one of the most polyglot places in the United States. The mosque - in a town with 7100 residents - draws more than 800 to Friday prayers, the Times reported. There's also a Hindu temple as well as congregations of Vietnamese, Sudanese and Liberian Christians. Clarkston's only burger joint is run by an Iraqi.
By combining the roles of disciplinarian and social worker, Mufleh has managed to meld diversity and harmony - and to win quite a few soccer matches in the process.
"They do get along with one another," she says of her multicolored players whose lives have often been scarred by racial, religious or ethnic hatreds. "The Bosnians hang out with kids from Congo on the weekends."
Tolerance doesn't always reign, however, when the Fugees play mostly white teams in what's still a Deep South state. "They yell racial slurs at our kids," Mufleh relates. "Those players hear their parents doing it."
Coach Luma's message to Vermonters will be to affirm their own state's growing diversity. At Johnson State, for example, students from 22 countries are included in an enrollment that remains 96 percent white, according to Ken Schexnayder, dean of institutional advancement.
"The demographics of America are changing and Vermont is changing, too," notes Mufleh, who occasionally visited Brattleboro during her college years in Northampton, Mass. "With the Fugees, we're hoping to create a model so other people can follow our lead."
Coach Luma, who comes from a well-off family in Jordan, motivates her players off the field, too. Mufleh helps arrange tutoring for many of her players, and with her fluent Arabic and French she's able to help some families navigate government bureaucracies. Mufleh has also started a home and office cleaning company called Fresh Start that employs refugee women at pay rates well above what they were receiving as maids in local hotels.
When contacted by Johnson, Mufleh had a choice to make: accept the school's invitation or attend the 10th reunion of her Smith College class taking place the same weekend. She didn't take long to decide. "It's a lot more powerful for me to connect with the students at Johnson," she says. "Speaking there will be more meaningful than getting together with friends and rehashing our college days.
"Johnson is the kind of school my kids will go to," she adds, referring to the Fugees. "I understand it has mostly working-class students and students that are the first generation in their family to go to college. A place like that will be the only way my kids will get out of the cycle of poverty."
Schexnayder says Johnson State is equally honored to host Mufleh. "One of the values important to us here is the notion of service to the community," he says. "Coach Luma's life has pretty much exemplified that."m
When It Comes to Commencement, VT Schools Emphasize Free Speech
VERMONT - Luma Mufleh will receive a $500 stipend for her May 19 address on Johnson's campus, along with a matching donation to the all-refugee soccer teams she coaches.
But paid commencement speakers are more the exception than the rule in Vermont. Graduation headliners typically receive nothing more than honorary degrees from the institutions whose invitations they accept.
"To pay someone being honored seems a bit awkward," says St. Michael's College provost Bill Wilson. National Public Radio political commentator Cokie Roberts is scheduled to address St. Mike's graduates on May 17.
The University of Vermont will be following its general nonpayment rule in the case of Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who has agreed to speak at the school's 203rd commencement on May 20. "The norm at UVM is that we pay only travel expenses for our commencement speakers, although we have paid a very occasional honorarium in the past," says university spokesman Jeff Wakefield.
Middlebury College also books only those graduation orators willing to forego their often-formidable fees. Bill Clinton, for example, gets around $150,000 per appearance, but the former president will get only a handshake when he speaks at Middlebury's May 27 commencement. On one occasion, however, Midd did contribute to a designated foundation at a speaker's request, notes John Emerson, secretary of the college.
The process of choosing a commencement speaker at a Vermont college or university ranges from highly structured to informal.
At Middlebury, which may have the most rigorous system, the selection process for next year's commencement speaker is already underway. A committee made up of college trustees, faculty, students and Emerson meets in April and again in November to sift the 40 to 50 nominees offered most years by members of the Middlebury community. A short list of eight names is eventually forwarded to the college president, who makes the choice in consultation with trustees.
Standard procedures were not followed in Clinton's case, however. Starting in the fall, Middlebury navigated back channels opened by well-connected alumni to arrange the ex-president's appearance. Clinton hadn't been on any list of nominees because "we didn't imagine we could get him to speak here," Emerson says.
Commencement speakers are also recruited through a formal process at both St. Michael's and UVM. Emphasis is placed on students' involvement at St. Mike's, Wilson says, noting, "It is their day." Often, however, students will suggest "mostly celebrity-type names, which are not always helpful," Wilson adds.
The small, Catholic college may not have much chance of engaging a Hollywood or hip-hop star. In addition, Wilson says, St. Michael's officials ask in regard to high-voltage personalities, "Is what they're about what we're about? Speakers need to represent the values of the college."
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