Middle Tennessee State University fall graduate Ori Bergman of Nashville proudly walked across the Murphy Center stage Saturday, Dec. 16, with a degree in biology and anthropology, including graduating magna cum laude and with the scholar distinction in undergraduate research.
“The commencement ceremony is a celebration for my family more than myself,” said Bergman, who is a first-generation student on her mother’s side. “Her family is very excited. I dropped out of high school as well, so I think they’re proud that I never gave up.”
Bergman was among the 1,761 graduates in the final Class of 2023 celebrated at separate morning and afternoon ceremonies inside Hale Arena where keynote speaker Ralph Schulz, president and CEO of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, addressed both groups of the newest Blue Raider alumni.
“Today I want to assure all of you that your future is bright — if you make the effort to seize opportunity. And that opportunity has never been greater than right here at home in Middle Tennessee,” said Schulz, who has led the Nashville chamber since 2006. “As preceding generations retire, the climate is ripe for graduates to quickly hone their skills and advance into leadership early into your careers.”
New graduate Bergman said she is arranging further education involving wildlife disease ecology and microbiome science. She spent much of her time as a Blue Raider involved in clubs like the Biology Club and the Student Organization for the Advancement of Research, and working on multiple internally funded research projects.
“Through MTSU’s tropical biology course in Costa Rica, I had the opportunity to visit La Selva Biological Research Station,” she said. “Before then, I had ideas for what my career could involve, but my conversations with field biologists at the station and hikes through the rainforest introduced new perspective that I couldn’t have found in a classroom.”
MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee alluded to such unique student experiences in his remarks, noting that “with our steadfast commitment to student success both in and out of the classroom, it is no coincidence that MTSU remains the choice of first-generation college students.”
Before graduates were conferred their degrees, McPhee and University Provost Mark Byrnes presented a special honorary doctorate degree — only the seventh awarded by the institution in its 110-plus years — to local developer and philanthropist John Floyd.
The founder and owner of Ole South Properties, Floyd was applauded for his decades of professional success as a top real estate agent and developer in Middle Tennessee as well as his generous philanthropy through his charitable foundation in support of nonprofits such as the Boys and Girls Clubs, Amelia’s Closet, Boy Scouts of America, First Shot Basketball and the Child Advocacy Center, among many others.
“What a wonderful award to get and what an exciting day,” said Floyd, smiling broadly. “The most important part of my success is that I lived in Middle Tennessee — a growing community and all the benefits and all the opportunities.”
Floyd, whose company has sold over 15,000 homes in Tennessee, noted that 25% of his staff graduated from MTSU. And 50% of the sales staff at Ole South Properties graduated from MTSU through the Blue Raider Real Estate Club, which he called “a great program.”
He’s also been proud to be able to support MTSU in many ways, including through philanthropy.
“I’ve been very fortunate and giving money the school … has been a great joy. The best feeling in the world when you can go out and help other people,” said Floyd, who was joined at the presentation by his daughter, Stephanie Calhoun, parents Maylene and Willie Floyd, and wife, Gina Floyd.
‘Once-in-a-time career growth’
To encourage the graduates, Schulz touched on words of wisdom he’d gleaned from various influential people who helped him on his own journey. He encouraged the graduates to embrace flexibility and openness to opportunities; invest in their community; move from learning to action; and face criticism with courage.
“Your journey has taught you how to finish. I see the perseverance and joy, the challenges and discoveries, the evolution of self that each of you have had to undergo to get here today” he said. “You are not the person you were when you first began your journey here, and today is a celebration of the scholars and doers you have become. Today marks the beginning of a new phase, where your learning transforms into action.”
Having had an up-close view of the dynamic economic growth of the Nashville and Middle Tennessee region, Schulz assured graduates that their hard-earned degrees and skills acquired while at MTSU will be in high demand and will serve as a pathway to a profitable and rewarding career.
“I can promise you there is a company willing to compete for your expertise. There are 55,000 job openings in the region. If you are a nurse looking for a job, there are 2,500 positions with an average starting wage of $59,000. If you are a computer scientist or software engineer looking to start your career, there are 1,400 positions with an average starting wage of $92,000,” he said.
“A recently released Brookings study highlighted Nashville as one of the nation’s fastest growing hubs for technology jobs. For those of you in other thriving verticals like concrete management and agribusiness, the possibilities are limitless. There is not only competition for each of you in the workforce, but also opportunity for once-in-a-time career growth.”
‘I know what my purpose is’
Of the 1,761 graduates in the university’s fall Class of 2023, 1,458 were undergraduates and 303 were graduate students, including 262 master’s recipients, 23 education-specialist recipients and 18 doctoral recipients. Seven graduate students received graduate certificates, and eight undergraduate students received undergraduate certificates for their advanced study.
Undergraduates Gracie and Matt Johnson of Murfreesboro met at MTSU, married in July 2021 and graduated together with university (summa cum laude) and Honors College honors, Gracie (3.9 GPA) with a bachelor’s in biology (physiology concentration) and Matt (4.0 GPA) in biochemistry.
Both wrote and defended their Honors thesis, received Scholar distinction for excellence in undergraduate research and were awarded scholarships in their fields of study. Matt also earned Honors recognition for outstanding GPA.
An undergraduate research assistant, Gracie Johnson, 21, who is from Hendersonville, Tennessee, has had drug resistant epilepsy since age 10. “I have been able to work around several of these complications and be successful in my classes,” she said.
From Surgoinsville, Tennessee, Matt Johnson, 21, adjusted from moving several hours away from home during the pandemic and switching from physics to biochemistry after his first semester.
They plan to seek doctorates in chemical biology, with Matt pursuing drug discovery research and Gracie pursuing drug delivery research and eventually moving to North Carolina’s Research Triangle near major universities and technology/biotech hub.
Meanwhile, graduate Byron Bankhead’s hard-fought Bachelor of Social Work degree has been a decade in the making. As a 19-year-old freshman, Bankhead faced the murder of his father his first semester of college in 2013. Since then, there have been financial hardships and family struggles.
“I’ve spent the last five or six years paying for classes one at a time, out of pocket, working two or three jobs,” explained the 29-year-old Jackson, Tennessee, resident.
In 2021, Bankhead finally garnered scholarships to return to school full time and enrolled in MTSU’s social work program, determined to see it through to the end.
“Quitting wasn’t an option for me. I feel like this is what I was meant to do in life — to be a resource to people,” said Bankhead, who has expressed his personal battles through spoken-word performances and participated in town hall-style meetings aimed at reaching Black and Indigenous people of color.
Bankhead’s degree path isn’t over. He begins social work’s master’s program in fall 2024.
“I know what my purpose is, and I can’t see myself doing anything else,” Bankhead said.
The official fall 2023 commencement program, listing all the graduates by college as well as providing more details on the event and speakers, is available at https://bit.ly/MTSUCommencement-Program-Fall-2023.
With the fall 2023 commencement ceremonies, MTSU has awarded more than 183,250 degrees to its students, including associate, bachelor’s, master’s, educational specialist and doctoral degrees, since its 1911 founding.
— Jimmy Hart, Nancy DeGennaro, Randy Weiler, Stephanie Wagner (email@example.com)