Alabama attorney and founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative Bryan Stevenson left thousands of new and returning MTSU students and others with a message of hope and mercy when he spoke Saturday (Aug. 25) at the 17th Middle Tennessee State University Convocation in Murphy Center:
From freshmen to faculty and administrators, most agreed Stevenson helped jump-start the 2018-19 academic year with a power talk centered on his calling to provide and promote social justice for the injustices people around the country have experienced.
Convocation, an annual rite of fall at MTSU, is designed to welcome new students into the learning community and to immediately engage them in the learning process. More than 5,000 people attended the formal ceremony, which later included the President's Picnic in Floyd Stadium.
"We need to change how we do systems and laws so not as many people are incarcerated," said Jamil Hayes, 18, a freshman aerospace technology major from La Vergne, Tennessee, and May graduate of La Vergne High School.
Grace Goodman, 18, of Murfreesboro, a Central Magnet School May graduate who plans to pursue nursing at MTSU, said she "loved him (Stevenson). I read the book. He completely turned me around on capital punishment, that you never realize the situation until you are there. People judge other people too harshly."
Stevenson wrote "Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption," which was the Class of 2022's Summer Reading selection. His memoir is the story of a young lawyer fighting on the frontlines of a country in thrall to extreme punishments and careless justice.
College of Basic and Applied Sciences Dean Bud Fischer read Stevenson's book two years ago. "He's amazing. He was great," Fischer said. "... What he does and where he does it (Montgomery, Alabama) is phenomenal."
Stevenson offered mind-boggling statistics regarding incarceration to support his mission.
"Even if you are a (University Honors College) Buchanan Scholar or (MTSU) faculty member, you've got to change the narrative," Stevenson said in his talk.
"You have to make a choice," the Harvard Law School graduate added. "Sometimes you have to do uncomfortable things to save the world. ... People change the world when they let ideas in their mind fuel conviction in your heart and do the things that must be done to leave a more approximate society."
Stevenson concluded by saying he wanted "to celebrate you (students), congratulate you and thank you for allowing me to be part of your journey by having this opportunity to speak today."
"What an amazing afternoon," said Deb Sells, vice president of Student Affairs and vice provost for Enrollment and Academic Services, before releasing the faculty and platform members and giving the students one last order of business: singing the MTSU fight song as Director Craig Cornish led the Band of Blue performing the popular tune.
Earlier, after reciting the True Blue Pledge, which outlines the university's values, everyone holding the sign turned it around to reveal "I AM true BLUE" for a photo opportunity.
"This is one of the most exciting times of the year," President Sidney A. McPhee said. "Beginnings are always special, but this Convocation celebrates and honors our newest students." He told them they "will meet individuals who may literally change your life."
The president urged them to "develop relationships with faculty and staff" and to return in four years for their graduation.
McPhee recognized high school essay-winning students and teachers from Smyrna, Riverdale, Stewarts Creek in Smyrna and Nashville's Christ Presbyterian Academy.
Trustee and alumna Pam Wright of Nashville, 2018-19 Student Trustee Peyton Tracy and Student Government Association President Courtney Brandon shared brief remarks.
Classes will begin Monday, Aug. 27.
MTSU has more than 300 combined undergraduate and graduate programs.