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Success stories abound at Commencement ceremonies across the College System

Outstanding Vol State grad Keonya Milam and her family

Commencement season is in full bloom across the College System of Tennessee as thousands of graduates walk across stages to receive their degrees, diplomas, certificates, pins and other credentials.

“Graduation is our highest level of student success,” Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor Flora W. Tydings said. “Graduation represents the conclusion of another academic semester or year for our campuses, and the culmination of years of study for our students. It’s the commencement of the next phase in the graduates’ lives, and a proud day for their families. It’s also a proud day for our system administration and the college faculties and staffs, whose work is all about instructing our students and helping them succeed and reach this point.”

Spring commencement season for the 13 community colleges runs May 4 through May 19. Many of the 27 Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology hold one commencement ceremony a year, while others conduct them at the conclusion of every trimester, and the schedule varies. TCAT Crossville, for example, held its ceremony April 19, while TCAT Covington’s is set for May 19.

The commencement schedule for the Community Colleges:

  • May 4: Pellissippi State, Roane State
  • May 5: Cleveland State, Columbia State, Dyersburg State, Jackson State, Motlow State, Roane State (second ceremony), Volunteer State, Walters State
  • May 6: Chattanooga State
  • May 8: Nashville State, Northeast State
  • May 19: Southwest Tennessee

Several of members of the Board of Regents are delivering the brief, traditional Regents’ Greetings during ceremonies at colleges in their areas of the state. Their messages to the graduates are similar: “You are why we serve. You are why this College, our Board and our System exist.”

It was a particularly gratifying day for Regent Jeremy Mitchell, the student representative on the Board. He delivered the Board’s greetings at Columbia State Community College’s commencement Saturday – and then watched his wife Sunny be awarded her Associate Degree in nutrition along with the college's other graduates.

“It was a proud moment for both of us: I got to watch her graduate and she got to watch me speak,” said Regent Mitchell, who himself graduated from TCAT Pulaski in March.

Across the system, commencement speakers include students, alumni, business executives, public officials, higher education officials, and heads of non-profit service agencies.

A sampling of stories from graduation ceremonies across the system:

As hundreds of family members and friends gathered at Volunteer State Community College’s Pickel Field House for commencement Saturday, Keonya Milam of Gallatin was honored as the Outstanding Spring Graduate among the 2018 graduating class of 781. The mother of two has overcome many challenges.

“I didn’t know I had dyscalculia. It’s like dyslexia, but with numbers,” said Milam. “I knew I struggled in math, but I never let it get me down. I just worked around it. I made an A in Algebra thanks to (mathematics professor) LaDonna Yarborough at Vol State.”

Milam used her math skills to help other students as a Supplemental Instruction (SI) Leader. SI Leaders are students with a strong grade in a class, who then lead extra work sessions in later semesters of the class. “I’ve helped so many people as an SI. Not to brag, but it feels great to have someone tell me that I helped them get an A,” Milam said.

Vol State's graduates included 288 Tennessee Promise students and 24 veterans. Eleven Sumner County Middle College High School students received both a Vol State degree and a high school diploma this semester through a dual enrollment program. Retired TBR Chancellor David Gregory gave the commencement address.

Columbia State Community College celebrated 343 degree and certificate candidates in the Webster Athletic Center Saturday as they crossed the stage during two separate commencement ceremonies.

“Today is a day of celebration of accomplishments,” President Janet F. Smith said. “It is a day of recognition, these graduates set a goal and accomplished it – it is a day of transition.”

Students delivered the morning and afternoon commencement addresses. Kirkland Pinkerton of Hickman County delivered the morning commencement address, encouraging students to persevere in life regardless of their circumstances, and to be whoever they want to be. He compared their experiences and next endeavors to honey – occasionally sticky and messy, but always leading to sweet new beginnings. “Know your calling and your passion and stop at nothing to get there,” Pinkerton said.

Meagan Walsh of Marshall County presented the afternoon address, congratulating her peers on all their hard work and reminding them to stop and appreciate their surroundings.

“Don’t forget to tell your family how much you love them, don’t forget to grab lunch with friends to catch up, don’t forget to stop and enjoy the view – see all that you have accomplished and do not try to move faster than life is willing to take you.”

Smith recognized the 19 President’s Leadership Society graduates for their participation in the program that focuses on helping students develop and apply their unique leadership skills.

“We established the President’s Leadership Society in the spring of 2011, based on the belief that leadership is inherent to our lives and that we all have leadership roles,” Smith said. “PLS is open to all students at Columbia State and requires only their commitment to involvement for learning, participation and helping others.”

During the course of the program, students attend retreats, enjoy exposure to the arts, participate in workshops and campus life, develop civic understanding, and give back to the community through volunteerism. Today, there are 96 PLS members.

Members of Walters State Community College’s 54th graduating class received their diplomas at the Walters State Expo Center in White Pine Saturday morning. President Tony Miksa asked an alumna of the college, Dr. Melissia Ball, to delivered the commencement address.

Ball, co-founder and CEO of the Myers & Ball law firm in Newport, warned graduating students about possible downfalls of using and posting on social media in the workplace or in search of new employment opportunities. Ball told all graduates that technology could be their best friend or their worst enemy. She challenged them to choose and use their words wisely.

Ball attended Walters State as a nontraditional student and earned an Associate Degree in 2000 in paralegal studies, passing the rigorous National Legal Assistants of America paralegal certification. After finishing Walters State, Ball graduated from Tusculum College with a bachelor’s degree in Organizational Management.

After finishing Tusculum, Ball told the graduates that she had to dig deep in order to obtain her Juris Doctorate.

“I worked full time and drove back and forth to Nashville,” said Ball. “Sometimes, I even slept in my car. I loved helping people, and I finally figured out that I could get paid doing what I love.”

Ball also said that she came from a poor family and overcame a tragedy when she was in the 8th grade.

“On my 13th birthday, on a Friday the 13th, my mother died of brain cancer,” said Ball. “It affected our family greatly, but it also made me realize I wanted to see and do more in this world. I always hungered for more knowledge.”

She said that growing up quick and having to work is still no reason to give up on your hopes and dreams.“If you want something bad enough, there is no excuse,” said Ball. “Be the author of your own destination.”

Another useful piece of advice that Ball gave the 2018 graduates was the negative side of using social media. “In my profession, I see numerous cases involving social media,” commented Ball. “The words you type can be used in litigation against you. So, be sure to think before you type."

Ball continued, “I can tell you that almost all employers check your social media account and see what you have written and what type of person you are. Also, your current employers will take a look at your pages. Your generation has the best chances to succeed due to your access to technology, so use it to your advantage.”

The College System of Tennessee is the state’s largest public higher education system, with 13 community colleges, 27 colleges of applied technology and the online TN eCampus serving approximately 100,000 students. The system is governed by the Tennessee Board of Regents.