Sometimes the simplest approach is the best.
“Wow. Look at where you are. You made it,” Associate Dean Barbara Turnage of MTSU’s College of Behavioral and Health Sciences told graduates in the university’s first two spring 2021 commencement ceremonies Friday, May 7, to launch a three-day, 10-event weekend for nearly 2,500 members of the first Class of 2021.
“No graduating classes since World War II have faced the uncertainty you did. The circumstances were obviously different back then, but this was just as unsettling and unpredictable as World War II was. We should all be appreciative that MTSU held together and is still thriving.”
MTSU brought its students back to historic Murphy Center for commencement this weekend for the first time since December 2019. The pandemic forced the university to salute the Class of 2020 virtually last May and August and in an amazingly weather-blessed in-person outdoor ceremony last November at Floyd Stadium.
The graduates, all masked and safely seated 6 feet apart, are receiving their degrees mostly according to college this weekend. The final ceremony, set for 4:30 p.m. Sunday, May 9, is reserved for those Class of 2020 graduates who couldn’t participate in last year’s events.
Public history doctoral recipient Mary Elizabeth Rivera of Franklin, Tennessee, said she felt immense joy to graduate in person Friday.
“The fruit of seven years of labor is finally coming to fulfillment,” Rivera said. “I am incredibly grateful. MTSU is the best university that I have ever attended.”
She had special praise for her dissertation committee, Albert Gore Research Center University Archivist Donna Baker and the University Writing Center in her seven-year quest for a Ph.D. and is the first woman in her family to earn one.
“Being here as a second-generation alumna makes this moment even more meaningful,” Rivera said, adding that she and her husband, data science master’s alumnus Hansie Rivera, together are ”setting the example for our children, Carter, 8, and Alicia, 3, to grow, learn and get their education.”
University President Sidney A. McPhee expressed his pride in both the graduates and the people supporting them, including the staffers who he said “worked tirelessly” to safely revamp commencement.
“I always say that our graduation ceremonies are the most significant events in the life of our university. These ceremonies, under these conditions and precautions, are even more significant,” he told the students and audience.
“I know that many of you would not have chosen to persist through an academic year with so many unknowns, so many changes to your routine. Whether you struggled, discovered a new appreciation for the possibilities of remote learning or surprised yourself by thriving, I know none of it was easy.
“That is why I’m so grateful that you accepted the challenge with the determination for which our students are known” McPhee continued. “It’s important that we gather here, in Murphy Center, to recognize the achievements of our graduates.
“And it’s also important we did not allow this global pandemic to stop us from showing our tremendous support and admiration for each of you as you move on to the next phase of your lives.”
‘You are ready,’ new grads hear
Dr. Leah Lyons, interim dean of MTSU’s College of Liberal Arts, told her college’s graduates — and her new fellow alumni — that the challenges they and their peers have faced and overcome should now reassure them.
“Whatever your response is to what comes next, just know that you are ready. Whatever next step you take, know that you are ready. You have the liberal arts education you need to make it happen, so you’re ready,” said Lyons, who earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from MTSU as a dual French and English major.
“Some of these skills you honed without even knowing it because you were applying knowledge experientially, or because you were so engrossed in your creative process and the technical aspects of your craft, or because you were busy searching for solutions to social problems to make our communities stronger and more equitable, or because the novel you read and group discussions that followed were so relevant and just that entertaining.
“And for some, you did all of this while putting in long hours, balancing your work schedules, and tending to the needs of your family.”
With a tiara on her mortarboard, new MTSU graduate Abigail Painter can rightfully call herself the queen of multitasking. While earning the bachelor’s degree in family and consumer sciences she received Friday, Painter has been a full-time student holding down two to three jobs at a time.
The Tullahoma, Tennessee, native plans to return to MTSU in August to start working toward a master’s degree in criminal justice administration while continuing at her current job as a probation and parole officer for the state. She’s also enrolled in the Tennessee Law Enforcement Training Academy in Nashville for additional certifications.
“Our mission is to operate safe and secure prisons and to provide effective community service to enhance public safety,” Painter said, citing criminal justice professors Lynda Williams and Deborah Newman as critical to her educational success. “I’m very blessed to be in the position that I’m in, to have a job before I even graduate college.”
Hannah Solima of Smyrna, Tennessee, the 2021 College of Liberal Arts Outstanding Undergraduate Student, has three majors — French, international relations, and criminal justice administration with a homeland security concentration — and a minor in German, and she made seven study abroad trips. She planned it all that way.
“This is something I have been working toward since I was searching for universities in middle school, so it is surreal to be completing this massive milestone in my life,” said Solima, whose Friday graduation also included the designation as a University Honors College graduate with distinction.
“It’s an opportunity to appreciate all the support I’ve been given and the friendships I’ve made in my undergraduate years,” she added. “I know I worked hard, but I never did it all alone. My family, friends and the best professors have been on this journey with me, and I am so grateful.”
Solima will study international relations and regional studies in a master’s degree program at the University of Tartu in Estonia, which she said “means the end of one great chapter of my life and the exciting beginning of another.”
Ceremonies continue through May 9
The May 2021 graduating class at MTSU, totaling 2,488 students, comprises 2,153 undergraduates and 335 graduate scholars.
That second figure includes 287 master’s degree candidates, 25 education-specialist degree recipients and 23 doctoral candidates, along with 26 graduate students who’ll receive certificates for their advanced study. One undergraduate student also is scheduled to receive a certificate.
Video replays of the ceremonies, as well as photos, from MTSU’s spring 2021 commencement weekend are available at https://facebook.com/mtsublueraiders.
A story on the university’s preparation for this spring’s unusual ceremonies is available at https://mtsunews.com/spring-commencement-2021-preview.
On Saturday, May 8, degree presentations in the Jones College of Business, College of Education and the College of Basic and Applied Sciences will be spread across ceremonies set for 9 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Central.
Students receiving master’s, educational specialist and doctoral degrees from the College of Graduate Studies are participating in the college’s ceremony for their academic specialty instead of their usual separate spring event.
Each college’s dean is scheduled to speak to graduates at their ceremony. McPhee and/or Provost Mark Byrnes also will speak at each event. The official spring 2021 commencement program, listing all the graduates by college and noting their honors, is available at http://ow.ly/uld730rGe7d.
All the ceremonies are being streamed free and live at www.mtsu.edu/live and on MTSU’s Facebook page, as well as airing on MTSU’s True Blue TV station on local cable channels and at https://mtsu.edu/TrueBlueTV.
The university is providing closed-captioning services for the live video streams as well as an interpreter on the stage for each ceremony.
May 8 will be the official graduation date listed on all diplomas, which will be mailed to graduates beginning May 24. Detailed information for all the students graduating May 7-9 is available at www.mtsu.edu/graduation.
MTSU will begin its summer 2021 semester on Monday, May 17. The semester will continue as a mix of remote-learning, online, in-person and hybrid courses, and mask-wearing will remain mandatory in all university buildings and during indoor and outdoor events.
The university plans to resume mostly in-person courses and activities for fall 2021, which begins Monday, Aug. 23.
For status updates on MTSU, visit http://mtsu.edu/coronavirus.
— Gina E. Fann, Stephanie Barette, Gina K. Logue and Randy Weiler (firstname.lastname@example.org)