Sam Grzelak was quiet, largely keeping to himself as a high school student growing up in Plainfield, Illinois.
The situation is quite different today as the 22-year-old biology major has become one of Roosevelt’s most involved students - a leader who will deliver the commencement address to more than 400 fellow graduates on Dec. 15 at the University’s Auditorium Theatre in Chicago.
The first in his family to receive a college degree, Grzelak has dealt with family struggles, including loss of the family home in Plainfield to foreclosure, while working and studying for his degree.
“A lot of ups and downs have led me to this graduation day,” said Grzelak, who lived in Roosevelt student housing, returning home on weekends to help his mother and four younger siblings cope with domestic violence and poverty.
“Most of my learning has been beyond the classroom,” said Grzelak, who symbolically changed his last name while at Roosevelt from Rivera to his mother’s maiden name in protest against a father who separated from the family when Grzelak was a Roosevelt freshman.
“I feel like a student speaker should be someone who stands out academically,” said Grzelak, who believes he could have done better than his average grades had trouble not befallen his family. “I never dreamed I would be nominated - much less selected - to be Roosevelt’s student commencement speaker.”
What Grzelak lacks in grade point average (he finishes with a 2.84 average), he has made up with student leadership.
“He came in as a quiet student, but grew into a leader, and I felt, because of his growth, that he should be our student commencement speaker,” said Roosevelt Multicultural Student Support Services Director Pamela Thompson-Hill, who nominated Grzelak for the honor.
Among activities, Grzelak mentored new incoming freshmen attending Roosevelt’s Summer Bridge Program. Like Grzelak, these students were the first in their family to go to college.
“He connected well with a lot of these students,” said Thompson-Hill. “Many of those he mentored still look up to him and see him as a mentor. As a result of the experience, he has become stronger as a leader.”
Grzelak also was a resident advisor at Roosevelt’s Wabash Building, founding and presiding over the National Residence Hall Honorary.
He joined the Center for Student Involvement’s SPEED Board where he helped organize homecoming activities in 2015 at Trump Tower in Chicago. He also attended the center’s student leadership summit and volunteered as an orientation leader.
“Sam has been our go-to guy in terms of getting the message out about activities and opportunities available to students in our Wabash Building residence hall,” said Jamar Orr, assistant dean of housing and community standards at Roosevelt. “He has a gift for promotion and communication that will serve him as student commencement speaker, and well beyond.”
Orr called Grzelak “the champion of the everyday person.”
“He’s not at the front of the line or the center of attention in a crowd taking credit for things. He is someone you can count on to get things done – a hard worker who is passionate about what he is doing,” said Orr.
Grzelak, who wants to be a dentist, knows the road ahead will be difficult. To prepare, he plans to attend graduate school, and is looking at a number of options, including Roosevelt’s Master’s in Biomedical Science program.
He is not sure exactly where this dream will take him, but he does have plenty of life experience to guide him as the eldest – and a leader – in a family rocked by financial and emotional hardship.
“When I graduate, I won’t really have a home to go back to,” said Grzelak, whose family members, since the 2016 foreclosure, have been split among homes of friends and other family members living largely in Plainfield.
“Roosevelt has taught me to take life in my own hands, to be independent,” said Grzelak. “I know myself better now and believe my future will be bright: I’m one of those people who sees the glass half-full rather than half-empty.”