After discussing the eight nominations it received for the inaugural New Richmond High School Distinguished Alumni Award, the selection committee was able to agree that 2002 NRHS graduate Jessica Stovall was the right choice.
"We had several outstanding nominees and it was not an easy task. However, Miss Stovall really distinguished herself in the areas of education, achievements and awards, character, community involvement, impact and excellence in their field," said high school principal and selection committee member Tom Wissink. "Her dedication, work and impact in the areas of education, instruction, leadership, race and equity, research and practical application. She continued to grow throughout her career and use her education and talent to help others and make a broader, positive difference."
Stovall will be honored during an induction ceremony from 9:15-10 a.m. on Thursday, May 23, in the high school auditorium. The ceremony will be followed by a small social with Stovall and her family, with the NRHS Culinary Arts students providing snacks and beverages.
"I was so surprised and honored when I got the call from Principal Tom Wissink. I am cup-runneth-over honored. If you were to tell my high school self that I would receive the inaugural NRHS Distinguished Alumni award, I would never have believed you. I was shy in both my personality and my sense of who I was, and I could never have imagined that I would have the incredible life experiences I've had thus far," Stovall said.
The induction ceremony will start with a review of the Distinguished Alumni Awards history and criteria, recognition of the selection committee, the sharing of Stovall's bio and an introduction by Wissink. Stovall will share her journey from "being raised and educated in New Richmond to where she is today," Wissink said.
"High school wasn't easy for me. It was really hard being one of the only Black students in school, and I think a lot of my passion for racial equity comes from those experiences. And yet, I was so involved," Stovall said. "I was a three-season athlete and practiced dance after my school sports. I was in pretty much every club imaginable, and I took leadership roles whenever I could. So despite any hardships I faced, I am proud of myself for staying engaged and involved to try to leave a positive mark. This philosophy has stayed with me throughout my career."
Although her high school years are behind her, Stovall still remembers many of her NRHS experiences.
"I'm pretty sure I bought a 25 cent Zebra cake every day for two years of high school. Getting a Zebra cake, and sometimes an ice cream cookie sandwich, and catching up on the school day was something I looked forward to. I absolutely loved AP bio, though I remember quite vividly trying not to faint in front of my crush as we dissected a live earthworm," Stovall said. "I loved pretending to learn to play the bells, even though I was terrible, in order to go on the Marching Band trip to San Francisco.
"One of my most precious memories of track and field was going in to State as an underdog, ranked as the second to last 4x4 team, but ultimately standing third on the podium. I have learned through this experience to never believe a low expectation of what I can do when I know I can do amazing things with heart, will, and support."
In addition to her recognition, Stovall will also get a plaque that will be displayed in the glass cases in the high school's main entrance.
"My parents have lived in New Richmond for 40 years, and they have built a home in this community. I come back for every holiday I can, and I love going fishing and hiking along Willow River with my family," Stovall said. "I am excited to get a tour of the new building after the award ceremony. I am nervous and excited to see my old teachers, with whom I am doing a short workshop on Wednesday. I hope they are proud of me."
Stovall's post-high school career has taken her all over the world. She got her Bachelors degree in Secondary Education-English, her Masters in Literature and is currently a Phd student in Race, Inequality, and Language in Education. She studied abroad for a year in Warwick, England, and taught for 11 years at Oak Park River Forest High School, in a suburb that borders Chicago. She was also awarded the IL Golden Apple Teacher of Distinction, was named to the Chicago Scholars' 35 leaders under 35 list and was a 2014-2015 Fulbright Distinguished Award in teaching grantee. She used her grant money to spend a semester in Wellington, New Zealand, which helped her organize a school exchange with a school in Whangarei, New Zealand.
"I absolutely love that I don't quite know what I want to be when I grow up. I have so many things I am passionate about, and I am excited to see what path I take. I could start my own consulting firm and collaborate with school districts; I could work in academia and add missing perspectives to research; or I could support a community by becoming a politician," Stovall said. "After giving a talk at the State Department in 2014, I received a book deal. So one big goal of mine is to publish a book for practitioners on using an empathy informed pedagogy for educating students of color."
According to Wissink, the other seven nominees the selection committee received for this year's award are automatically considered for five years. Nominations are open now through Dec. 1, 2019 for next year's award. For more information on the award criteria, see the award bylaws or contact the high school.
"I think this is amazing that the school started this program! The school that I taught at has a similar award called 'Tradition of Excellence' ceremony, where three alumni are celebrated each year. The first thing you see when you walk into the school is a 'Wall of Excellence' where you see amazing alumni, from Ernest Hemingway to Thomas Lennon, who have learned and grown in the four walls of the high school," Stovall said. "I am proud to be one of a long line of tremendous alumni that have come from New Richmond High School, and I look forward to reading about the alumni celebrated year after year."
Although this year's induction ceremony is only open to students, staff and invited guests, Wissink said the selection committee will do a review every year to make improvements and could expand attendance if necessary.
"I feel really honored that not only my family, but also some of my most formative teachers will be in the audience. Besides the teachers that still work at the high school, my kindergarten, second and third grade teachers will be in attendance along with some high school teachers that are now retired. I did not get to where I am without amazing teachers, and I am so happy to be able to honor some of them on Thursday," Stovall said.