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Meet commencement speaker Janelle Thirtyacre: “the teacher every student deserves”

Janelle Thirtyacre
When asked about something she wishes she could have told her younger self, Janelle Thirtyacre said, “So many things. Mainly that people are their own worst critic. Growing up there were lots of things I wanted but didn’t go for because I thought I wasn’t good enough. At Boise State, I surrounded myself with people who supported me. Then I learned to do that for myself and embrace the idea that I was capable.” John Kelly photo

Janelle Thirtyacre’s resume lists the kinds of accomplishments you’d expect in a commencement speaker. The English Teaching major has an enviable GPA and a history of excelling in lots of ways. She swam competitively in high school. She was first-runner-up in the Washington State Poetry Out Loud recitation contest and won Boise State’s Slam Poetry Championship in 2018, keeping her nerves at bay, and performing an original piece. Thirtyacre finished college in just two years after earning her associate’s degree as a high school student. She plans to become a teacher.

But as much as excellence, another word characterizes Thirtyacre’s time at Boise State: inclusion.

Whitney Douglas, one of Thirtyacre’s professors in the English department, wrote a letter in support of Thirtyacre as commencement speaker.

“I always look for the student(s) with whom I can make eye contact through the first class because they are smiling and make me feel at ease. Janelle was that student for me, and as I learned through the course of the semester, that is who she is – and will undoubtedly continue to be – for many people,” wrote Douglas. “Janelle is the teacher every student deserves.”

Thirtyacre, Douglas said, had a gift in class of listening to peers, asking questions in a way that challenged peers’ ideas “without making them feel invalidated.”

Thirtyacre’s sense of inclusion extends to the speech she’ll give for Boise State’s 2020 winter commencement.

“I’ve watched so many videos of graduation speeches. I felt like I didn’t connect with them,” said Thirtyacre. “No one person can connect with everyone. Especially this year, during the pandemic, when everyone has had so many challenges.”

Breaking with tradition, Thirtyacre reached out to fellow students across campus. She invited them to record their own messages that she could integrate into her speech. She contacted past Boise State commencement speakers and those students who had applied alongside her to be winter commencement speaker. The end result? “We’ll see how it pieces together,” said Thirtyacre.

Whether it’s a success, or more of an interesting experiment, Thirtyacre’s collage of a speech stays true to her philosophy: if she’s going to be in the spotlight, she’s going to bring some friends along with her.

“Janelle Thirtyacre leads by lifting up others. As a teacher-to-be, Janelle brings out the best in individuals and in groups of people,” said Jim Fredricksen, one of her professors in the English Department. “She celebrates and honors the dignity of everyone.”

One of Thirtyacre’s favorite poems is by Emily Bronte: Often rebuked, yet always back returning. “It focuses on the idea of being your own person and embracing all the different parts of you, like your imagination or dreams, regardless of what people expect,” said Thirtyacre. “The last line, ‘The earth that wakes one human heart to feeling / Can centre both the worlds of Heaven and Hell,’ really hits hard because life on Earth is the place between heaven and hell. If people are not connected to who they are at heart, they are not fully living.” Carrie Quinney photo

Thirtyacre grew up in Las Vegas. In high school, she moved to Eatonville, Washington, at the foot of Mt. Rainer.

“It was a small town, much less diverse than Las Vegas. I had to find ways to connect,” Thirtyacre said.

She got a job as a swimming teacher for students with disabilities and worked as a Special Olympics coach. At Boise State, she became a resident assistant and guest housing supervisor, responsible for the safety of 48 younger students. Thirtyacre counts that leadership role among her greatest experiences at Boise State.

As a student teacher during the pandemic, she built close relationships with her students, including a shy 6th grader whose first language was Swahili. Thirtyacre went out of her way to engage the girl, drawing her into conversation about simple things. On Thirtyacre’s last day of class, the girl brought Thirtyacre a gift, a shoebox filled with candies and a note that read, “You make me feel smart. Thank you.”

“This is what Janelle does and it’s who she is,” said Fredricksen. “She wants others to see the best in themselves, because it makes all of us better.”