Tusculum awards degrees to about 300 students in first graduation ceremony as a university

Laurie Smith experiences life fully as a married mother of two busy teenage sons and a kindergarten teacher at Cedar Bluff Elementary School in Knoxville.

Laurie Smith, valedictorian during Saturday’s graduation ceremony, delivers her remarks.

On Saturday, Dec. 15, she added another distinction to her portfolio: a Master of Arts in education with a curriculum and instruction concentration from Tusculum University. It is the second degree she has earned from Tusculum, the first being a Bachelor of Arts in education with a kindergarten through sixth grade concentration.

Serving as valedictorian, Smith was one of about 300 students to receive a degree during Tusculum’s jubilant fall graduation ceremony Saturday, Dec. 15, at Pioneer Arena in the Scott M. Niswonger Commons. This class was the first to participate in such an event since Tusculum converted from college to university status in July.

The ceremony brought smiles and cheers in abundance, with many students posting special messages on their caps. The event even featured a selfie taken from the stage with the audience in the background. At the conclusion, professors and members of Tusculum’s executive cabinet formed lines to applaud the graduates as they left the arena.

As she discussed securing a master’s degree in her 40s and the accomplishments of her classmates, Smith summarized their quest in one word — perseverance.

“Some of us are just beginning our next chapter while others of us are several chapter into the book of life,” Smith said. “We have different experiences and viewpoints depending on the stage we are in. What ties us all together is perseverance.”

Smith said this attribute is evident in a person’s actions.

“Perseverance gives us the prodigious feeling of accomplishment of our goals and the feeling each of us has right now as we reflect on how hard we worked to arrive at this point in our lives,” she said. “Real life will not be easy. There will be obstacles, and there will be failures. But perseverance will help us find a way around those obstacles. When we walk out these doors, I implore you to keep your growth mindset and perseverance. They will serve you well in life and help you to accomplish all of your goals.”

After completing her undergraduate degree on Tusculum’s Knoxville campus, Smith began her teaching career. She wanted to finish her master’s degree earlier, but this academic step continued to be postponed until she received help with her work load. Her husband calls her a driven person, so she eventually proceeded with her master’s degree through Tusculum’s online program.

Smith said the master’s degree will enable her to pursue an academic coaching or lead teacher position if she decides to change her career focus. Joshua Johnson, who was salutatorian for Saturday’s ceremony and earned an online master’s in talent development, said this degree will strengthen his skills in his job as coordinator of county and state scholarships at Northeast State Community College.

Joshua Johnson, salutatorian during Saturday’s graduation ceremony, delivers his remarks.

“I like to be in a leadership role with students, where I can be impactful, and I hope I can continue somewhere along those lines,” he said. “The master’s program has taught me not only about leadership but actually about developing talent within my field. The great thing about Tusculum’s master’s program was it was designed to support what I was already doing, and that’s why it was such an easy choice.”

Johnson, who lives in Piney Flats, said he had an exceptional experience at Tusculum.

“Everyone here — the faculty and staff — has been so supportive of me that it’s actually made the process of receiving my degree easier,” he said.

On the undergraduate level, Patrick Jones, who took his classes on the Greeneville campus, received a biology degree with an environmental science focus. He said Dr. Connor Keitzer and David Frazier were particularly helpful to him.

“I had a lot of fun here, especially exploring the Appalachian Mountains as part of my degree,” he said. “We’re right next to the Appalachians, and that’s one of the biodiverse wonders of the world. There was also a lot of one-on-one interaction with the teachers here. I could develop more of a personal relationship here with the teachers, and that made my studies go more easily.”

Addressing the graduates, Dr. James Hurley, Tusculum’s president, highlighted how this was the first graduation ceremony as a university. But he reminded the audience about Tusculum’s stature as Tennessee’s first institution of higher education, having been founded in 1794, as well as its Presbyterian roots.

Other examples of Tusculum’s leadership are:

  • In 1806, it was the first university in the state to educate an African-American student, John Gloucester, who subsequently founded First African Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia.
  • In 1878, it was the first Presbyterian university in the country to admit female students.
  • In 1984, it became the first university in East Tennessee to develop degree programs designed for working adults, paving the way for students such as Smith and Johnson.

“In addition to these firsts, today Tusculum is an institution of choice for first-generation university students,” Dr. Hurley said. “Many of you participating today are the first in your families to attend college or a university, let alone to graduate from a college or university. I’m so very proud of you. I, too, am a first-generation graduate. Regardless how long your journey has taken you, today is that culmination. Today, you will transform from a university student to a university graduate, and we are here to celebrate you.”

Tusculum awarded more than 130 bachelor’s degrees, about 160 master’s degrees and six associate’s degrees to local, national and international students.

A few additional facts about this graduating class are:

  • The average age is 31.6, with students ranging from 18 to 57.
  • Students come from 12 states and nine countries
  • Eighty-seven percent of the students come from Central Appalachia.
  • Females account for 65 percent of the students.

In addition to the bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Tusculum awarded emeritae degrees to two individuals. One is Dr. DiAnn Casteel, a retired education professor, who led the effort to change the Master of Arts in education program to fully online, where enrollment has steadily increased. The other is Dr. Melinda Dukes, who has been a model of the knowledge, values and character central to Tusculum’s civic arts mission.

Tusculum also presented Dr. Angela Keaton the Outstanding Service to Students Award and Dr. Paul Fox Jr. the Teaching Excellence and Campus Leadership Award.

For more information about some of Tusculum’s graduates, please view https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w9vd0o5qSag. To learn more about the university, please visit www.tusculum.edu.