More than 900 graduate and undergraduate students received degrees and achieved their educational goals at spring commencement May 6.
Thousands of students, faculty, staff, families and friends packed Allen Arena to celebrate the Class of 2017 at the two ceremonies during which nearly 950 degrees were awarded.
Doctoral and graduate commencement began the day with a morning ceremony during which Misty Vetter Parsley, associate professor of education and faculty advisor for the IDEAL program, gave students a professional charge.
Undergraduates received their degrees at an afternoon ceremony. Hazel Arthur, professor of social work who is retiring after 23 years on faculty at Lipscomb, gave the faculty charge.
“Don’t just stand there,” Arthur challenged the graduates. “Do something. You were made to do. The world awaits. It needs you to make it a better place.”
“And don’t just do something,” she continued. “Stand for something or for someone. Be the person who is willing to stand in the gap. Stand on the Word that endures.”
Lipscomb President L. Randolph Lowry addressed graduates at both ceremonies and reminded them they will always “be part of the Bison herd.”
Although the word commencement means “a beginning” — and it does symbolically represent the start of a new journey with a new degree — it is also a time to celebrate the completion of educational goals and the determination it took to achieve them.
An example for others
Tracey Bowden’s journey to a college degree began about two decades ago. That path led her to Lipscomb twice, and she received her second college degree — an MBA — this spring.
Bowden grew up in inner city Nashville and went to the Youth Hobby Shop (now Youth Encouragement Services), an after-school program for inner city kids that has strong ties to Lipscomb and the Churches of Christ. She began her college career about 20 years ago when she attended Tennessee State University on a volleyball scholarship.
“But I got married and we began to start a family and I decided to focus on my family at that time,” recalled Bowden.
As her children grew and began to think about attending college about a decade ago, Bowden’s daughter, Tiffany, encouraged her to go back to school to finish the degree she started years earlier. As Bowden thought about the prospect she remembered going to Youth Hobby Shop as a child where she became familiar with Lipscomb University.
Bowen enrolled at Lipscomb and finished her Bachelor of Business Administration degree through the adult degree program in 2012. During that time, she met Allison Duke, associate dean of graduate business in the College of Business, who encouraged her to pursue a master’s degree.
“I prayed about it,” said Bowden. “At the time I wasn’t in a financial position to go back to school or even think about a master’s degree. I continued to pray and fast. God knows His children. I told Him that if He would make it possible I would go. His word back to me was that first I had to apply. So, I decided to go for it.”
When Bowden got accepted she once again turned to prayer and fasting about how she was going to be successful at school with the demands of a rigorous work schedule that included a lot of travel.
“I wanted to be in this program, but I also wanted to give all I could to my employer,” she said.
So, Bowden accepted a demotion at work to change her responsibilities to allow her the flexibility to take classes and study.
“I entered the master’s program, but went into it half-heartedly. But I knew it was God’s plan, so I kept trying,” she said. “I got a second demotion. Then I got a new mind shift. I realized that this was what I was supposed to do.”
“I realized that they can’t take that away from me,” Bowden continued. “One of the things I have learned is that when you accomplish a goal not everyone will be happy for you.”
On May 6, the crossed the graduation stage with her MBA degree in hand.
Bowden, who serves on the board of development for Youth Encouragement Services today, said she wants her story to be an example to others.
“My underlining goal was to show the kids at YES not to let your age or finances or where you are placed in society limit you if your goal is to go back to school and obtain a degree,” she said. “Those circumstances may make the journey difficult, but it doesn’t make it impossible.”
A new beginning
When Ralph Gaskin walked across the stage to receive his Bachelor of Science degree in psychology it symbolized much more than completing the necessary academic requirements for the degree. For Gaskin it symbolized survival and a successful new beginning.
Gaskin’s path to a college degree was 25 years long and took several challenging detours.
In 1992, a young Gaskin dropped out of high school following his junior year to work at the family landscaping business — Gaskin Lawn and Fertilizing — in his hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Gaskin went on to earn his GED and on Jan. 4, 1994, he enlisted in the Indiana Army National Guard. After basic training, Gaskin was trained to become an Army medic and was assigned to Charlie Company 1-293rd Infantry when he returned to Indiana. He stayed there for eight years and was promoted to staff sergeant, and in January 2002 he accepted a platoon sergeant position in the 113th Medical Support Battalion. After leading the platoon for a year, Gaskin said he decided he “didn’t want to make the Army a career anymore.”
For two years, Gaskin said he struggled to find work. He had grown weary of the landscape business. Gaskin, his wife Paige and their three children were living in a small trailer with his mother while he worked as a cashier at a nearby truck stop making $6.75 an hour.
“We were on the verge of homelessness,” Gaskin recalled. “We couldn’t continue this way. My wife and I discussed our situation, prayed about it and I ended up back in the Army as a medic stationed at Fort Stewart, Georgia.”
From April 2006 until 2013, Gaskin served on active duty. During that time he was deployed to Iraq twice, each deployment taking a toll on Gaskin physically, mentally and emotionally.
“I came home and had a host of issues,” he said. “Most of them I had no clue what was going on. For months I had serious issues with either falling asleep or if I got to sleep I had nightmares all night long. And if you don’t get a good amount of sleep on a regular basis, it affects everything else about you. Your mood, stamina, temper, weight control, health and more. After having been home for around five months I couldn’t understand why I was just ticked off all the time. I would constantly yell at my children and my wife. They deserve more than that. I couldn’t understand why I was so angry all the time. There was also the internal struggle of knowing I shouldn’t be that mad, and that caused me to get even more angry.”
Gaskin sought help and began working with a counselor. After what he said felt like months of work with the counselor, Gaskin said he grew frustrated.
“At the end of one session I told the counselor that our sessions were always me talking and her listening. One day I just asked what I was supposed to do with all of this,” he said. “She said, well, maybe go get a dog or start a garden. Of course that wasn’t the answer I was looking for and I went home furious at what seemed to me to be a flippant response.”
A frustrated Gaskin shared his conversation with his wife who quickly said, “no,” to the dog idea, but made him get in the car with him right away.
“I asked her where we were going,” he said. “She said, we’re going to Lowe’s to get the things we need to start a garden. And I was out there that night digging and planting a garden. And it ended up changing my life.”
Gaskin was medically retired in 2013 as he suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, arthritis and “all of the ‘itises,’” he quipped. But before Gaskin retired, he wrote a book on using alternative methods for treating PTSD and called it “A Warrior’s Garden: Seeds of a therapeutic approach to dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Gaskin bought a farm in Columbia, Tennessee, where he has started War Fighter Gardens, a nonprofit that offers therapy for veterans and first responders among others.
Then one day Lipscomb alumnus Zach Bell told Gaskin about the university’s Yellow Ribbon program, and he decided to pursue a college degree.
“With the book, the farm to manage and the nonprofit, getting a college education was an essential part of this,” he said.
In addition to qualifying for the Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits and Lipscomb’s Yellow Ribbon Program, which provides an undergraduate and many graduate degrees tuition-free to qualifying veterans or their dependents, Gaskin learned about the university’s competency-based education program, through which students can earn up to 30 hours of college credit for prior knowledge and work experience.
Gaskin completed the program’s CORE assessment program, housed in the College of Professional Studies, and received 30 hours of credit. He also brought with him 19 hours of college credit through education he received while on active duty. So, Gaskin jumped in and completed his undergraduate degree in 24 months, not taking any breaks once he began.
“The CORE assessment blew me away,” said Gaskin. “I completed a lot of my courses online, and the professors online were amazing. But it was also great being in class. With PTSD, I don’t like crowds of people, but everyone at Lipscomb has been so understanding, friendly and polite. My on-campus experience has gone really, really well.”
In addition to running his nonprofit, Gaskin is enrolled in the master’s degree program in sustainability and then will pursue his master’s degree in clinical counseling, both at Lipscomb. He is also working on writing a second book.
A fight to survive
For Devon Greenlee, commencement was the culmination of grit and determination that had little to do with her coursework or performance in the classroom.
A native of California, Greenlee graduated with a Bachelor of Social Work degree in 2015 from Texas Christian University. She soon decided that she wanted to pursue a career in education and was placed at Lipscomb University through the Teach for America program. Teach For America is a national organization that recruits and trains enthusiastic college graduates to become classroom teachers particularly in low-income schools. Teach for America picked Lipscomb in 2009 as its partner to provide licensure course work for the Nashville corps. Greenlee, like many of her TFA colleagues, opted to pursue a Master of Education degree after earning her teaching license. Greenlee had taken her teaching coursework at Lipscomb as part of Teach for America and continued in our master's program last fall.
“I always wanted to be a teacher,” said Greenlee. “The Teach for America program was a pathway for me to get a credential and experience quickly from a very good school. This was exactly the program that I needed at exactly the time that I needed it.”
In December, the Lipscomb University College of Education’s teacher preparation program received the highest score in the state on the 2016 Teacher Preparation Report Card released by the Tennessee State Board of Education. The Teach for America-Nashville program, which has a longstanding partnership with Lipscomb’s College of Education, received the second-highest score on the report card.
As part of the Nashville TFA program, students are placed in schools in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. Greenlee taught her first year at Bailey STEM Middle Magnet School and was assigned to Stratford Middle School this past school year. Last fall, as she was in her second year of her Teach for America commitment, Greenlee was diagnosed with Cavernous Malformation, a rare vascular disorder found in her brain and spinal cord. Greenlee learned that it was a condition with which she was born. The malformation was diagnosed in September and was inoperable at that time.
In December after her condition worsened, doctors operated to repair the malformation. Devon completed all requirements for her Master of Education from Lipscomb that same month, just as her condition worsened.
When her degree was being awarded on Dec. 17, 2016, Greenlee was just one day out of surgery with one of the world's best neurosurgeons located in San Francisco. She could have easily opted to receive her degree in absentia and receive it in the mail a few weeks after fall commencement.
But Greenlee had other plans. She was determined to receive her diploma in person, and asked university officials to delay awarding her degree until May. As is the case with many brain surgeries, Greenlee spent nearly two months in a rehabilitation unit in California relearning how to walk, eat, sallow and talk among other tasks.
“I wanted to do this on my own terms,” said a determined Greenlee the day before spring commencement. “I wanted to graduate on my own terms. Even though I went back to California for my surgery, everyone at Lipscomb was so encouraging through this. I was particularly inspired by something Julie Simone (instructor in education at Lipscomb and university liaison for Teach For America) told me. She told me, even in the condition I was in, ‘You can do hard things.’”
“When I was working so hard in rehab and I wasn’t sure if I could do it, I kept hearing those words and I kept telling myself that I can do hard things. I can learn to walk again. I can learn to talk again. I told myself that I am not done with life yet. I am only 24 and I am not done yet.”
Greenlee was determined to walk unassisted across the stage at commencement to accept her graduate degree and to shake the president’s hand.
Two days before graduation, Greenlee flew to Nashville with family and friends in eager — and nervous — anticipation of achieving this goal. Although Greenlee has made great progress in the months following her surgery, she continues to walk with a cane, still has numbness on her left side, has difficulty holding objects, has a slight speech impediment, has vision issues with her right eye, has coordination issues and tires easily.
Still, she was determined to walk across the stage without her cane. Which she skillfully did.
“I wanted to come back to Lipscomb to prove that I am okay,” she said. “Even though there is still much work to be done. This was very important to me to do this. This is a very big deal for me and a very special day.”
While in town, Greenlee visited her students at Stratford Middle School, where a substitute has been filling in for her since her surgery, to teach them about traumatic brain injury.
“Someday I want to teach again,” she said.
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