Student Honors 6th Grade Teacher's Harvard Graduation Note

"She lit a fire in me that helping people is a powerful tool, and through education, you can better serve populations in need. I will never forget her passion for others."


A great teacher has the potential to change a trajectory of student’s life by unlocking worlds for them they didn’t learn exist until later in life.

That is precisely what Judith Toensing, a teacher in Yuma, Arizona, did in 1997 when she left an inspiring message on one of her sixth-grade students’ report card.

"It has been a joy to have you in class,” she wrote. “Keep up the good work! Invite me to your Harvard graduation!"


Little did the teacher know, two decades later, her note would come full circle as she did receive an invitation to the Harvard graduation from the very same student.

Christin Gilmer, was only 12 at the time when she was in Toensing’s 6thgrade class, but she kept the message close to her heart – and 21 years later, she made it happen.

Gilmer, who is now 33, recently graduated from one of the most prestigious universities in the world as a doctor of public health. Her passion for the subject dated back to her childhood days and she believed it was her former teacher who first believed in her to pursue her interests.

"It meant a lot to me to know that outside my mom, someone who knew me so intimately believed in my dreams and my ability to accomplish them," Gilmer told CNN.

Prior to her graduation, she wrote a long thank you post on Facebook, in which she named Toensing to be one of her heroes who contributed in her achieving her lifelong dream.

"She lit a fire in me that helping people is a powerful tool, and through education, you can better serve populations in need. I will never forget her passion for others," Gilmer said.  In a note she also stated, "Ms. Judy Toensing, taught me about current events, global health, and human rights. She was the first person who passionately conveyed the plight of people living with HIV/AIDS to me.”

Gilmer’s heartfelt post garnered widespread attention, most importantly of the school administrators, who then decided to honor the teacher by inviting her to the 2018 Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health's convocation.

However, what’s even more heartwarming is the fact that Dean Michelle Williams, during her commencement address, in the convocation narrated the story of the student-teacher duo and applauded Toensing’s efforts that gave Gilmer a sense of direction at such an early age.

“Mrs. Toensing, who’s in the audience today, I thank you for your work—and the work of so many other teachers at every grade level,” Williams said. “It is so immeasurably important. You don’t just teach young people. You inspire them, and you propel them along a path of fulfilment and service to others. Your work is what makes our work possible. Thank you for everything you do, and please keep sending students our way!”

Predictably, it came as huge surprise for Toensing to receive an invitation from Harvard – that too personally delivered by her students from years ago.

"I have high expectations of all my students, so to hear that Christin had achieved this goal did not surprise me in the least," Toensing told CNN. "I feel honored that Harvard chose to tell Christin's story, her journey, and that I was a small part of that journey."

As a student in Toensing's class, Gilmer, who got her master's degree in public health at Columbia University, wrote a 100-page advertisement on how recycling in the area would work over a decade prior to it finally happening.

She stated she would "love to return to Southern Arizona to work in health, politics, and community development.”

“I wanted to learn from the best institutions in the world so that I could bring back the knowledge and skills I have obtained and share them with the communities from which I came,” she added.

It definitely must have been a moment of immense pride for the teacher who had unknowingly made such a huge impact on her student who surpassed her expectations.

"She has many more miles to go, I know with her tenacity, her dedication, and her passion for helping humanity, she will be highly successful and that we will all be the better for knowing her," Toensing said.

Banner Image Credits: Pixabay

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