Harvard graduate surprises Yuma teacher with inspirational invitation

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(Source: Christin Gilmer) (Source: Christin Gilmer)
(Source: Christin Gilmer) (Source: Christin Gilmer)
Toensing's message to Gilmer in her 6th grade report card Toensing's message to Gilmer in her 6th grade report card

Most teachers give everything they have for their students, and one Yuma native recently found an incredible way to say, “Thank you.”

The last time that Christin Gilmer was in Judith Toensing's classroom was in the sixth grade. That year, Toensing wrote a special note on Gilmer's report card. It read, "It has been a joy to have you in class, keep up the good work, invite me to your Harvard graduation."

"She just had the passion to go forward and make a difference. And I just wanted to set the goal and set the bar high," Toensing said.

It was a message Gilmer kept with her for the next two decades, through her undergrad studies and eventually on to Harvard, where she spent much of her time studying infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS, malaria, Ebola and tuberculosis. 

"I had always had a picture of it and carried it with me, carried the note with me," Gilmer said. “Anytime I was having anxiety or struggling with some cruel injustices in the world, or even just kind of doubting myself, it helps me to remember her words."

[RELATED: A 6th grade teacher wrote ‘Invite me to your Harvard graduation!’—21 years later, the student did just that]

When it came time to graduate, Gilmer knew the one person who needed to be there with her.

"And when I pulled it out the last day, I submitted my dissertation. I got to look at her note and I kind of just started crying," Gilmer said. 

Recently, Gilmer made a special trip back to her hometown of Yuma to surprise her favorite teacher with a hand-delivered invitation.

"I would have been there, hands down," Toensing said. "I would have grown feathers to get there." 

Toensing wouldn't have had to do that. She says the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health paid for her plane ticket to Boston. And on graduation day, she was there watching her student from 21 years earlier earn her doctorate degree in public health. 

Harvard Dean Michelle Williams even thanked Toensing by name in her convocation speech.

"I can't think of a better way to pay homage or show gratitude to the person who impacted me so much," Gilmer said. 

And Toensing couldn’t be prouder of her pupil.

"As a teacher, it's the epitome of everything we try to accomplish in the classroom," Toensing said. 

Gilmer is currently working for the Special Olympics in Seattle, but says her long-term goal is to return to Arizona.

"That's my family. That's my heritage. Those are the people who meant the most to me," Gilmer said. 

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Lauren ReimerLauren Reimer joined the 3TV/CBS 5 family in June 2016. She is originally from Racine, WI but is no stranger to our heat.

Click to learn more about Lauren.

Lauren Reimer

She previously worked for KVOA in Tucson, covering topics that matter to Arizonans including the monsoon, wildfires and border issues. During the child migrant crisis of 2014, Reimer was one of only a handful of journalists given access to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention facility in Nogales, where hundreds of unaccompanied children were being held after crossing into the U.S. from Central America. Before that, Reimer worked at WREX in Rockford, IL. Lauren is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee and still visits home often. When not chasing news stories, Reimer loves to explore, enjoying everything from trying new adventurous foods to visiting state and national parks or local places of historical significance.

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