Spring 2021 Commencement
Dr. Brendan B. Kelly’s Presidential Remarks
May 15, 2021

Good day, University of West Georgia! It is truly so good to be here with you all today for our Spring 2021 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 for the class of 2021: your Commencement ceremony at the University of West Georgia.

As members of the class of 2021, 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 sitting in classrooms, physically distanced from other students, 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 2021 – 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 2021, 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.

The COVID-19 pandemic may have kept us from many things, but it didn’t keep you from showcasing your artistic talents and endeavors – from art galleries to musical performances from our bands and choirs being broadcast on Facebook Live or theatre productions that pivoted from live performances to filmed performances.

It didn’t keep many of you from being accepted into world-class graduate programs throughout the United States and beyond, and it didn’t keep us from supporting students through our own world-class graduate programs at UWG.

It didn’t keep our Men’s Basketball team from going to the NCAA tournament. It didn’t keep us from winning a Gulf South Conference championship in Women’s Golf, or keep two of our graduates today – Nadia Davilla and Brandi Boddy – from securing Gulf South championships in high jump and shot put, respectively. 

It didn’t keep us from bringing home two national championships in Cheerleading (for the 26th and 27th times in the past 21 years), confirming that we are, indeed, the best program in the United States.

COVID-19 has kept us from many things, and it made an indelible mark on ourselves, our society, and our world, but it did not keep you from “becoming.”

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 – of learning, making mistakes, enduring hardships, celebrating successes, and continually evolving. All the time, we become. Allow me to share just a few stories of how the students graduating today have “become” this year.

  • Brad Hawkins attended UWG as a non-traditional student after working for more than a decade in the construction industry. A consummate history buff, Brad always wanted to find work in the field he loves. As a student in the history master’s program in the College of Arts, Culture, and Scientific Inquiry, he earned that opportunity. Interning in the aviation wing of the Marietta Museum of History, Brad impressed his employers so much that they created a graduate research assistantship just for him. Then, when the Museum of Aviation grew so much that it could become its own entity, Brad was named director of the new museum. While starting this new, full-time job of getting a new museum off the ground, Brad still managed to finish his outstanding thesis in public history and graduate from our institution. Well done, Brad...congratulations!
  • Another graduate from the College of Arts, Culture, and Scientific Inquiry, Tinaye Gibbons is a highly decorated student, earning the Thomas A. Herndon Jr. Award, presented to an undergraduate history major who has exhibited outstanding qualities of character, scholarship, civic leadership, and participation in the social and political sciences as exemplified by the late Thomas Herndon, a graduate of our class of 1939. Tinaye was recently named an alternate for a coveted, nationally competitive Fulbright Scholarship and will begin her graduate studies in Ireland at Trinity University in Dublin in the fall, where she will earn a master’s degree in public history and cultural heritage in one of the most storied institutions, cities, and nations on planet earth. Tinaye, you are truly impressive.
  • From the Richards College of Business, Gina Tabone has proven herself to be an impactful leader even before entering the business world. Earning a bachelor’s degree in marketing with a certificate in sales and advertising, Gina has served as the president of the American Marketing Association at UWG. She recently competed against hundreds of university students from across the state and received the American Marketing Association’s Ken Bernhardt Award for an outstanding collegiate marketer, marking the third consecutive year a UWG student has received the award. Congratulations, Gina!
  • We will recognize a superstar at the University of West Georgia: Sydney Francis, who’s graduating today with a bachelor’s degree from the Tanner Health System School of Nursing. Since starting at UWG, Sydney has always loved to be involved, and she has expertly balanced the rigorous coursework with the commitments of her multiple co-curricular activities, from the Student Government Association to the UWG Blue Coats and her on-campus job in University Recreation. She was involved in all of these organizations – and so many more – and still maintained a 4.0 grade point average throughout nursing school (and, friends, that is really hard). After earning her degree, she will begin work at Emory University Hospital in the Medical Oncology department, fulfilling a calling she’s had since spending time as a caretaker for her grandmother. Earlier this week, as I sat in the Board of Regents meeting with the other 25 college and university presidents from across the state of Georgia, we celebrated the Academic Recognition Day Scholars, one student from each institution who exemplifies the best we have to offer. This year, Sydney Francis was selected as that exemplar for the University of West Georgia. Sydney, you are amazing. Congratulations!
  • We will celebrate a graduate who is indicative of our university’s mission to launch students’ careers before they even graduate: Camryn Kiley, who’s graduating today with a bachelor’s degree in film and video production from our Department of Mass Communications – which, I am proud to announce, has matured and advanced to become the School of Communication, Film and Media beginning July 1. The classes in Camryn’s degree program led to incredible opportunities for her to create a portfolio that highlights screenwriting, cinematography, and video editing. While at UWG, Camryn earned an internship with a production company and worked on a “Lifetime” movie set in a department in which she was the only female professional. Now, her experience as technical director of the WUTV news station, executing productions from start to finish, has led to her first job offer after graduation as assistant video tech with a film studio producing the next big series for Apple TV. Congratulations, Camryn!
  • Graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Health and Community Wellness from the College of Education, Jessie Crowder has a passion for uplifting her community both locally and globally. Following long careers in cosmetology and banking, during which she mentored at-risk youth in her native home of Atlanta, Jessie began her educational career at the University of West Georgia and traveled to Belize on a university-sponsored trip, teaching children math, literacy, and the importance of oral hygiene. Next month, having earned her UWG degree, she will travel with the Center 4 Transatlantic Leadership and Progressive Studies Abroad Program for a three-week tour of Ghana, West Africa, serving as an ambassador of the United States. Thank you for your leadership, Jessie. Congratulations!
  • Finally, becoming is a process of a lifetime – not a particular point in time. Our pursuit of learning should never end. That is certainly true for Gilbert Huey, who’s graduating today with a degree in organizational leadership from University College. Gilbert, who serves as the manager of quality assurance at KasonIndustries, a commercial hardware manufacturer headquartered in Newnan, was inspired to earn his degree by his wife, Sandra Huey, who happens to be one of the superstars who work in UWG’s Office of Human Resources. Sandra herself is currently enrolled in the program, and Gilbert enrolled both to brush up on his already well-demonstrated leadership skills but also to spend more time with his wife. Now, two years later, Gilbert is crossing the finish line, demonstrating that this university can create value for you at all different times in your life and provide a very elaborate series of date nights if you so choose. As a husband and a graduate, congratulations, Gilbert!

The circumstances of the past year 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.