Volunteer State Community College | Commencement Address

Delivered by Kenyatta Lovett on December 15, 2018
Pictured: Dr. Kenyatta Lovett, Executive Director, Complete Tennessee; Dr. Jerry Faulkner, President, Volunteer State Community College

To the Tennessee Board of Regents, elected officials, community leaders, and the supporters of our graduates today, thank you for being here this morning.

To the President of this great institution, Dr. Jerry Faulkner, the faculty, administrators and staff, more appropriately known as my Vol State Family, I am honored and humbled to be invited to offer the commencement address today.

And most important, to our graduates, thank you for allowing me to join you in this celebration and great achievement.

There are many reasons why each of you set out to accomplish this goal to earn a college degree or credential. For some, this journey started with a desire to get a job, or a better paying job. Others know for certain this will serve as a major accomplishment in their life. And there are others that believe earning a college degree is a great way to set an example for their family and community; that committing to higher education is a worthy and possible goal.

In either case, and for reasons that mean the most to you, you have accomplished that goal you set out for yourself today, and so much more.

Today, I would like to talk about one of those bonus gifts you have received from completing your degree; the gift of resilience. There is much talk in the workplace these days about soft skills, and in the halls of academia about critical thinking, and in the home it’s known as "using common sense". But resilience can help you acquire all of these personal and professional characteristics we find valuable in our society, and so much more.

The common definition of resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness. It's grit, and all those things we believe define someone who demonstrates the determination to flat out get it done!

This bonus gift you have received from your educational journey will benefit you in more ways than you know.

Here are some examples of how resilience can benefit you on your journey ahead.

For starters, you now know that goals are accomplished by committing to taking one more step forward. How many of you remember all the paperwork that was required just to even get to the point of registering for your first class? I had the misfortune of filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid with my daughter a few months ago, and I am now convinced it is the premier barrier for most to enter college. If you have not had this experience, trust me, you are not missing anything.

My point is that while the paperwork required just to get ready to register for your first course was tedious – often seemingly ridiculous at the time, getting beyond that point was critical to developing the resiliency needed to study for that next exam or signing up for tutoring.  

You also now have the ability to accept the reality that barriers will no doubt be encountered along the way. As the saying goes for Murphy’s law, “If something can go wrong, it will.”

There are so many things that have to go right to make college an easy experience. But, what happens when things go wrong?

What inspires me the most today as an advocate in higher education are the stories of how students overcome barriers beyond the imagination of most. Many of you have lost loved-ones during your journey, lost jobs, or run short on money due to unforeseen circumstances.

Today, we are celebrating you because you did not accept your circumstance as the end of the road.

As you look to each side of you, hopefully, you realize that the resilience you have demonstrated in this achievement has also helped the people around you. Yes, resilience can be contagious, and last for several decades, if not centuries.

My father, who has joined me here today, spent months laying bricks in Memphis after graduating high school to earn enough money to pay for college. He remains one of the few in his family to have earned a college degree. He is the symbol of his family back home for what is possible when you commit to your goal and embrace education.

He went on to earn his bachelor’s degree, still laying bricks in the summer time during college, and then on to earn a masters and doctorate.

I say that resilience can be contagious for a long time because you have no idea what your accomplishment today will do for those not even born yet. From my father, there are five kids. Collectively, my siblings and I have earned six bachelor’s degrees, six master’s degrees, and one Ph.D.

Were it not for his commitment to taking steps forward, and overcoming barriers along with way, I am not certain the accomplishment of his kids would be what it is today.

 From our vantage point here on the stage, and in the stands, we see before us a masterpiece of resiliency.

The questions we ask every day at Complete Tennessee is a question I hope you will ask yourselves in similar fashion; and that is “how can you support more of your fellow, or unfortunately former, classmates to also cross this finish line we are celebrating today?”

There were many that joined you in taking the first step forward, and the second step, and maybe even a few more. But somehow, their progress slowed or ended.

Volunteer State Community College has made tremendous progress in offering the supports necessary to increase the number of graduates that walk across the stage each year. During my time here, we only had one commencement ceremony in May. Now, the institution needs two to accommodate the volume of graduates each year.

But we have much more ground to cover in this effort to improve student success.

For many of your colleagues that have stopped out along the way, they encountered barriers that were too insurmountable - from their perspective - to continue on the journey. Family issues, work obligations, financial insecurities, even food insecurities are factors that impact the progress of today's students.

While the responsibility to get back on track is on the person, your presence, your encouragement, and your accomplishment today can make a tremendous difference in helping Tennessee in this worthy effort.

I close by encouraging each of you to reach out to one that you know and encourage them to consider coming back to college, or share your story with someone that is on the fence about entering college, or offer your time and resources to support the Volunteer State Community College Foundation.

Your accomplishment today is just that important, and can have more impact than you know.

Congratulations graduates, and thank you.