Good morning, University of West Georgia! It is truly so good to be here with you all today for our 2020 Commencement Ceremony. My name is Dr. Brendan Kelly, and I have the privilege of serving as your president here at UWG. I am delighted to welcome you to the most honored tradition we have at the university and to what will be the crowning experience of the class of 2020: your Commencement ceremony at the University of West Georgia.

2020 has certainly been a year we will never forget. As members of the class of 2020, you will have special memories attached to this year: finishing your degrees at the University of West Georgia amidst a global pandemic; taking classes online that you expected to take in person; and walking across the Commencement stage, physically distanced, wearing a mask.

Through it all, though, you have persevered, and through that adversity, you have proven you can overcome. That is what matters: not how you got here but that you got here, despite the obstacles and the unexpected circumstances. You rose to the challenge and overcame it.

When I think of the class of 2020 – and, really, the University of West Georgia as a whole – I’m reminded of a Japanese word, kaizen, k-a-i-z-e-n. Kaizen means “improving through change.” Realizing your goals takes time and a commitment to continuous improvement; it doesn’t happen overnight. You, the class of 2020, have embodied the kaizen philosophy by persevering and reaching your goals, and I encourage you to keep leaning in to the challenges life throws at you for years to come.

At graduations, we often say we are celebrating the end of one chapter and the beginning of something new. And that is true. Most importantly, we are celebrating a transformation in people’s lives. Your transformation. Your “becoming.”

Becoming is what we grow to be. What we become is a journey – to learn, make mistakes, endure hardships, celebrate successes, and continue evolving. All the time, we become. Allow me to share just a few stories of how the students graduating today have “become” this year.

  • Nathan Azarowicz, a graduate from the College of Arts, Culture, and Scientific Inquiry, is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. Nathan is currently enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. He took a year off to serve a deployment in Japan and South Korea in 2018, and after returning, he was accepted to the competitive Georgia Legislative Internship Program and interned at the Legislature during the 2019 session. Thank you for your service and your relentlessness. Congratulations, Nathan!
  • Graduating with a bachelor of science in nursing from the Tanner Health System School of Nursing, Maggie Leptrone knows what it’s like to need good nursing care. A Type I diabetic most of her life, Maggie came close to passing away from hypoglycemia in her junior year in high school. At that point, her mom found out about the Diabetic Alert Dogs of America, trained to detect highs and lows in blood sugar, and that is when Maggie met her service dog, a Labradoodle named Mona, who is with her everywhere – class, clinicals, and labs. Now, with her degree in nursing, Maggie has accepted a position at WellStar Douglas in their ICU. Congratulations, Maggie – and thank you, Mona, for helping Maggie become who she was destined to be! While we have had the opportunity to share that story with you this morning, know that at the University of West Georgia, that celebration doesn’t just end with the story. When Maggie crosses the stage this morning, we will be presenting her with Mona’s degree, as well, along with a small mortar board that will fit her.
  • We should also celebrate a superstar at the University of West Georgia: Rickia Stafford, who’s earning a degree in political science from University College today, was named the University of West Georgia’s second Truman Scholar earlier this year. The Truman Foundation was created by the U.S. Congress as a living memorial to President Harry S. Truman and the Presidential Memorial to Public Service. The foundation’s mission is premised on the belief that a better future relies on attracting to public service the commitment and sound judgment of bright, outstanding Americans. There have been 3,322 Truman Scholars selected since the first awards more than 40 years ago, and one of them is here at the University of West Georgia. I had the pleasure of informing Rickia, a first-generation student from Smyrna, of the great news via a virtual call, and since that time, I have been consistently impressed by her commitment to her passions and calling. Hoping to learn the justice system to bring about change, Rickia intends to attend law school and earn a master of social work with a concentration in social work leadership at Florida State University upon her graduation from UWG. Keep changing the world, Rickia!
  • A doctoral candidate from the College of Education, Meitra Perry, is earning her doctorate in Professional Counseling and Supervision. Meitra is not new to UWG – in fact, quite the opposite. She is graduating today with her fourth UWG degree, having already earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a master’s degree in professional counseling, and an education specialist degree in professional counseling. Today, she works as an elementary school counselor, has co-authored a children’s book, has been selected as the Douglas County Schools Counselor of the Year, a Douglas County Chamber of Commerce Top Ten Young Professional, a Thriving Under 30 UWG Top Alumni, and was selected as the recipient of the Distinguished Mentor Award by the Communication Science and Professional Counseling Department at the University of West Georgia. And somehow, she has the time to be the proud mom of a 4-year-old and 18-month-old, and she is excited to be earning her fourth college degree while remaining debt-free because of the scholarships and opportunities she found at UWG. Dr. Perry, you are truly impressive.
  • M'Lynn Jenkins earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science in the spring from the former College of Science and Mathematics. M’Lynn was originally a math major who took a computer science course and discovered she had a true passion for that discipline. She switched majors and worked as a teaching assistant in the department's Computer Science Experience Lab, where she tutored other computer science students. Now, she has left the University of West Georgia to become a software engineer with BP in Houston, Texas. Congratulations, M’Lynn!
  • I would like to recognize a special person who has worked in the catering department of our very own Dine West since 2017. Taezirat Kazeem, but we all call her “Titi,” is graduating with a master’s degree in Instructional Technology, Media, and Design from our College of Education. I have come to know Titi as she sets up the catering for our events, serves everyone food with a smile – even behind the mask – and assists in other areas of Dine West when she’s needed. Her personality and sense of humor shine through no matter what she’s doing, and we – her colleagues, her supervisors, and myself – are so proud of her accomplishment today. Now, we get to celebrate her as she seeks to impact the world by making education better for others. Way to go, Titi!
  • Alyse-Noel Hicks earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications in the spring. She was incredibly involved during her time at UWG as an ambassador for the university as a UWG Bluecoat, member of the Phi Sigma Pi National Honor Society, and the HOWL Social Media Ambassador Team. And above and beyond all that, she has begun her master's work in public relations and corporate communications at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Exceptional next step in your becoming, Ms. Hicks!
  • Aandia Mayhew is graduating today with a bachelor’s degree in Management Information Systems. Aandia was one of the first students to join UWG's Women in Technology Campus group. Her professors say that throughout her time with us, she has shared her experiences and learnings with other female science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics students to help guide them. Her hard work created a strong academic record which led to a highly desirable internship and ultimately a fantastic job in cybersecurity with Home Depot Corporate.
  • Finally, Samuel Smith graduated in the spring with a Bachelor of Music degree with a concentration in Performance: Piano Pedagogy from the former College of Arts and Humanities. Sam's story is unique because this isn't his first degree. He graduated from East Carolina University in 1976 with a degree in Composition, later earning another degree and beginning a career in information technology. When he retired in 2016, he decided to achieve a lifelong ambition of becoming a pianist. Sam was accepted by audition to UWG's Music program to study piano. Becoming, you see, is a process of a lifetime – not a particular point in time. Mr. Smith is proof that learning never ends.

The circumstances of 2020 as a nation and world have been extraordinary. Things have changed for all of us. However, there is one thing I am sure of for this class of graduates: the world needs you.

Now, more than ever, the world needs ingenuity. We need innovation. We need people who can think creatively about the world and begin to help us invent the future, whatever it holds. You are the leaders we have been waiting for, and we need you to jump into the world, embrace challenges, make companies stronger, make communities healthier and more connected, make every action impact positive change in the world.

A university education is equipment for living, and each of you is ready to go and meet the world. Do not stop learning. Do not stop challenging yourself to be better. Do not stop becoming. Kaizen means improving through change. Today, we are celebrating what you have grown to be. This is not the end. It is a new beginning. Do not stop continuing to get better.