Governor Bill Haslam urged UT graduates to be grateful, humble, and involved during Friday’s undergraduate commencement ceremony in Thompson-Boling Arena.
“I’m not asking you to think less of yourself, I’m asking you to think of yourself less,” he said, paraphrasing British author and theologian C. S. Lewis. “The happiest and most content people I know are people who have realized that the story is not about them—that there’s something bigger going on . . . and have figured out to make their story part of this bigger story.”
This fall, the university awarded 1,864 undergraduate degrees, 1,133 graduate degrees and certificates, and two law degrees to students who completed their studies in the summer or fall. Three ROTC cadets were commissioned during the undergraduate ceremony.
Friday’s undergraduate ceremony was punctuated with a series of special moments:
- Amaya Linsey, who was a student in the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences, was surprised on the stage by her brother, Airman First Class Jerald Linsey Jr., home on leave from his base in North Dakota. The two hadn’t seen each other in nearly a year and the family didn’t know if he’d be able to make it home for the event.
- Paul Whited, undergoing chemotherapy at UT Medical Center, was seen live on the arena’s giant screens inside the stadium when his name was called. Surrounded by family and his doctor, the accounting major was congratulated by one of his favorite faculty members in the Haslam College of Business, Anita Hollander.
- Amy Schisler accepted the diploma awarded posthumously to her son Tanner Wray, an aerospace engineering student and vice president of the Chi Phi fraternity who died in February 2017 while competing in the Ace Miller Memorial Boxing Tournament.
- The ceremony ended with Smokey directing the band in playing “Rocky Top” as giant orange and white balloons and streamers cascaded from above.
Haslam, who spoke at UT’s commencement eight years ago as a newly elected governor, said he thought it was only fitting to be speaking again now as he’s preparing to leave office.
“My life story is inextricably wrapped up in this university and this campus. Seventy years ago this fall, my dad—the very first in his family to go to college—literally took a Greyhound bus from St. Petersburg, Florida, to come here,” he said. “The trajectory of his life, and my life and so many others, was changed because he got to come to school here.”
Haslam told the graduates he hopes they feel a sense of gratitude to all of the people who helped them get to this point in their lives.
“I want to expand your picture of that to include all the citizens of Tennessee who helped pay for your education and helped fund the building and the operational costs, to incredible faculty who have decided to give their lives to teach folks, to the parents and grandparents and other folks who have sacrificed so that you could be here,” he said.
He urged graduates to pay back that debt of gratitude by finding a way to support public education.
“We have a lot of challenges in this country, a lot of big ones, and the fundamental answer to those problems is public education.
He also urged graduates to be good citizens of society.
“Our country is divided. The problem is, we’re divided and we’re mad about it,” he said.
He quoted the late Senator Howard H. Baker Jr., a UT graduate: “Always remember, the other fella might be right.”
He said it’s important to listen to others, especially those whose opinions differ from our own.
“This tendency to confirmation bias is not good for any of us,” he said. “Issues are a lot more complex than people think.”
Finally, he stressed the importance of putting others first.
“I’ve decided there are two kinds of people in the world. There folks who walk into an event and say, “Here I am’ and there are people who walk into an event and say, “There you are.’”
“I hope you’ll be a ‘there you are’ person for your entire life.”
Amy Blakely (885-974-5034, firstname.lastname@example.org)