President Obama recognizes Brandeis alumna
President Barack Obama gave Brandeis alumna Kelsey Grab ’12 a “shout-out” during his recent visit to Malaysia.
In an address on April 27 in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, Obama spoke about Grab’s experiences as an English teaching assistant with the Fulbright Program to highlight the growing relationship between the people of Malaysia and the United States (listen to the speech; mention of Grab at 10:20 mark).
Grab, a fine arts and sociology major who graduated summa cum laude from Brandeis, taught English and art from January-November 2013 at SMK Ajil, a secondary school in rural Terengganu. Obama focused on Grab’s efforts to engage her students following the Boston Marathon bombings last April by educating them about the city and its culture and history.
“And so her students began to feel like a place, that this place, Boston, that was a world away, was actually something they understood and they connected to and they cared about,” Obama said during his speech at the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative Town Hall at the University of Malaya.
Obama told the conference attendees that Grab’s students became so interested in Boston that they eventually sent get-well cards to those who had been injured in the bombings.
“Partnerships like those remind us that the relationship between nations is not just defined by governments, but is defined by people — especially the young people who will determine the future long after those of us who are currently in positions of power leave the stage,” Obama concluded.
Grab, who grew up on Boston’s South Shore in Middleboro, first heard about her inclusion in the president’s speech from friends who were at the conference. They called her at 6 a.m. in Boston to share the news.
“I got a few frantic phone calls and emails, ‘The president is talking about you,’ ” Grab said. “I was half asleep and didn’t believe it. It’s touching to realize what I did matters and is still being talked about.”
Grab, who was a Sorensen Fellow at Brandeis, thought that teaching her students about Boston in the aftermath of the Marathon tragedy would help them learn English and also get a better sense of the United States.
“Classroom learning can be boring, so my job was to make English more fun and interesting and to engage them in ways to make them want to study the language,” Grab said. “I was so upset after the bombings, and I wanted them to understand how much I cared about my city.”
She taught them about the Red Sox, Cape Cod, Boston area universities (including Brandeis), and apple picking in the fall. They even learned to say “wicked awesome,” a favorite Boston phrase.
Ultimately, the students felt such a connection to Boston that they decided to write to those injured in the bombings. With the help of friend Lydia Flier ’11, whose father, Brandeis Trustee Jeffrey Flier, P ’11, is the dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Harvard, the letters made their way to patients at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Network.
“I was so impressed about how caring and loving my students were,” Grab said. “You can’t teach compassion.”