MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Amid the 1,672 new success stories celebrated at Middle Tennessee State University on Saturday, Dec. 11, fall 2021 graduate Brelinda Johnson is making her mark on both the student and staff sides of the university.
Johnson, manager of the MTSU Scholars Academy since 2018, balanced work and school to set a precedent at the university: She earned the first doctoral degree aimed at helping students succeed in college.
The Adams, Tennessee, resident’s new degree falls under MTSU’s Assessment, Learning and Student Success Program higher education concentration in the College of Graduate Studies. She also earned an MTSU master’s degree in child development and family studies shortly before joining the university staff in 2009 as an advising manager in the College of Behavioral and Health Sciences.
Johnson says the higher education-focused ALSS program gave her an opportunity “to learn not only from our faculty but others that are in the program and their areas of expertise working in higher ed, to be able to add to the knowledge and support that I’m able to provide with students in my everyday job.”
Her “everyday job” in the Scholars Academy focuses on helping students, especially those who are first-generation, underrepresented and underprepared college attendees, by introducing them to university life with a supportive learning environment.
In fact, her dissertation focused on supporting learning, looking at how family involvement affects Black students’ academic success.
“I work in Student Success,” Johnson said. “I love it. I’d like to continue to work in that, creating student assessment initiatives and programs. … I want to see education evolve, and I want to do as much as I can to make an impact on that evolution.”
Her fellow member of the fall Class of 2021, who’s also graduating with highest honors, also attributes his educational success to support from others.
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College of Liberal Arts music industry major Liam McBane of Lilburn, Georgia, is one of the University Honors College’s Buchanan Fellows, MTSU’s top scholars.
He calls his MTSU experience “a wonderful time of learning from other people — professors, students, staff and friends — and the multitude of perspectives has helped me enjoy the beauty of the world and understand others so much better.”
“Graduation is a celebration not so much of what I’ve done, but how I’ve grown,” the new School of Music alumnus adds. “It’s the final moment of a period in which I have learned a tremendous amount about music, people and life.”
McBane, who plays piano, viola and harpsichord and plans to seek work with a symphony orchestra and consider graduate school, is grateful for what the university’s offered him.
“MTSU has given me opportunities and, ultimately, those chances are all I could ask of anywhere,” he says.
‘Significant commitment and sacrifice’
MTSU is indeed honored by Johnson’s and McBane’s and their fellow fall 2021 MTSU graduates’ choice of the university, President Sidney A. McPhee said during the three Dec. 11 commencement ceremonies inside Murphy Center.
“I am so grateful that you have chosen our university to pursue your academic degree,” he told the graduates and their supporters.
“We recognize that this great milestone required significant commitment and sacrifice — not only yours but also that of your parents, family and friends who diligently supported you.”
The 1,373 undergraduates and 299 graduate students of the fall Class of 2021, who stood and enthusiastically cheered the salute to their supporters, also have a resume of resilience few can match: a nearly two-year history of completing their degrees while working, studying and living amid a global pandemic.
They saw some return to normalcy late in their final semester at MTSU, when McPhee lifted a mask mandate and social distancing requirement inside campus buildings. Many, like others on campus, chose to continue masking up to protect themselves and others.
“I know that many of you would not have chosen to persist through an academic year with so many unknowns, so many changes to your routine,” the president continued. “You’ve faced the challenges with great determination, and today you will be rewarded with a college degree from an outstanding university.
“We look forward to seeing the far-reaching impact of what you have learned during your studies at this university.”
The fall 2021 graduate-student total includes 271 master’s degree recipients, 13 education-specialist degree recipients and 15 doctoral recipients, along with 10 graduate students who earned certificates for their advanced study. Two undergraduate students also received a certificate.
Students from MTSU’s College of Graduate Studies and College of Behavioral and Health Sciences received their degrees at a 9 a.m. ceremony. Students in the College of Basic and Applied Sciences and Jennings A. Jones College of Business celebrated at a 1 p.m. event, and the university awarded diplomas to undergraduates in the College of Education, College of Liberal Arts, College of Media and Entertainment and University College at a 5 p.m. ceremony.
MTSU’s three-day, 10-ceremony spring 2021 commencement was the first in Murphy Center for nearly a year in the wake of the pandemic. The university conducted virtual commencements in spring and summer 2020, then held the fall 2020 graduation outdoors in Floyd Stadium on a surprisingly perfect late November day.
The spring 2021 events had no outside speakers, and MTSU deans spoke directly to their college’s graduates in smaller, safer gatherings. The summer 2021 graduation, which traditionally welcomes the departing MTSU Faculty Senate president as speaker, continued that tradition, and McPhee provided the only commencement speeches at the fall 2021 ceremonies.
The fall 2021 commencement program, listing all the graduates by college and noting their honors, is available at http://bit.ly/MTSUFall2021GradProgram.
Photos from the day's events are available at https://bit.ly/MTFall2021GradPhotos.
Since its 1911 inception, MTSU has awarded 171,770 degrees to its students, including associate, bachelor’s, master’s, educational specialist and doctoral degrees.
The fall 2021 ceremonies, which marked the start of the university’s 111th academic year, pushed that total over 173,400 degrees in 110 years.
MTSU will be closed for winter break Dec. 23-31, and offices will reopen for the new year on Monday, Jan. 3.
The spring 2022 semester at MTSU begins Tuesday, Jan. 18. For status updates on MTSU anytime, visit https://mtsu.edu/coronavirus.