‘Invite Me to Your Harvard Graduation,’ Said Her Sixth-Grade Teacher. Two Decades Later, Watch as Ph.D. Graduate Does Just That

Credit: Cristin Gilmer/Twitter

This article is one in a series at The 74 that profiles the heroes, victories, success stories, and random acts of kindness found at schools all across America. Read more of our recent inspiring profiles at The74Million.org/series/inspiring.

Young Christin Gilmer definitely got the message that you should always listen to your teacher. It was 1997.

At the end of the school year, Yuma, Arizona, sixth-grade teacher Judith Toensing wrote a glowing message on 12-year-old Christin’s report card.

“It has been a joy to have you in class. Keep up the good work!” Toensing told her star student, who was also the class president.

“Invite me to your Harvard graduation.”

Gilmer, now 33, held onto a photo of that note for 21 years. And on May 23, she honored her favorite teacher’s request when she crossed the stage to collect her doctorate from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

There was Toensing in the audience cheering her on, right along with Gilmer’s family and friends.

“I can’t think of a better way to pay homage or show gratitude to the person who impacted me so much,” Gilmer told the Arizona’s Family news network in Phoenix.

Gilmer said Toensing’s words kept her going “anytime I was having anxiety or struggling with some cruel injustices in the world, or even just kind of doubting myself.”

In a surprise visit to her Arizona hometown, Gilmer burst into her old teacher’s classroom and bestowed the invitation on Toensing, a touching moment captured in a video posted by CNN.

“Best teacher I’ve ever had, hands down,” Gilmer told Toensing’s current students.

Back at ya, the teacher said.

Harvard picked up the tab for Toensing’s flight to Boston, and T.H. Chan School of Public Health Dean Michelle Williams was so moved, she told the touching story of the graduate and the grade school teacher in her convocation speech.

In an effusive thank-you note posted on Facebook, Gilmer credited Toensing with first alerting her to the plight of people living with HIV and AIDS. That sparked a passion for the study of infectious diseases that propelled Gilmer from an undergraduate degree through a master’s from Columbia University to her biggest dream of all — a doctorate in public health from Harvard.

Back in ’97, Gilmer and two classmates “wrote a 100-page prospectus, interviewed the mayor, and envisioned how recycling could work in their town 15 years before it actually happened,” the beaming Harvard dean told the graduation ceremony crowd.

It was a science project Gilmer’s sixth-grade teacher never forgot.

“She just had the passion to go forward and make a difference,” Toensing told Arizona’s Family.

In her speech, Williams lauded primary and secondary teachers for the inspiring work they do.

“Your work is what makes our work possible,” the dean said. “Thank you for everything you do, and please keep sending students our way.”

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