By Erin Garrett
Smiling faces, warm embraces and a few happy tears were seen in the Grove Saturday (May 13) as thousands of graduates came together on a breezy, sunny morning to celebrate the conclusion of their academic journey during the University of Mississippi’s 170th Commencement.
UM Chancellor Glenn Boyce welcomed approximately 6,000 students, family, friends and faculty to the Grove before speaking to the drive and character of the Class of 2023, a class that experienced an unprecedented disruption of their studies due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He praised their resiliency and congratulated them on a job well done in the face of adversity.
“We are here because of your grit, your determination, your perseverance,” Boyce said. “You inspired us every single day.
“This is going to be the next great generation of leaders.”
Stephanie Hickman, president and CEO of Trice Construction Co., delivered the Convocation address, in which she told the soon-to-be graduates to prepare themselves for additional challenges that will come their way.
“Never forget that you can do the hard things, no matter how daunting they seem,” Hickman said. “That is what will mold you into a leader.”
Hickman, a Chicago native who grew up in the Lee County town of Shannon, enrolled at Ole Miss in 1979. Although she transferred and completed her bachelor’s degree at Eastern New Mexico University, she returned five years later to enroll in the School of Law.
“It feels like yesterday when I first drove up University Avenue to arrive on this campus and entered the Grove,” she said. “These trees were just a little smaller then because it was actually 44 years ago. And it was 32 years ago that I walked across the stage in Fulton Chapel to receive my law degree.
“So trust me when I say that right about now is the moment when time starts speeding up in your life, so I encourage you to look around, take a deep breath and just be here in this moment before it’s gone.”
Hickman began her career working for the National Labor Relations Board and later worked as a utility executive before transforming Trice Construction into an awarding-winning contractor serving Fortune 500 corporations and major public entities.
“The more you pivot in life, the more flexible you become,” she told the graduates. “Embrace uncertainty and be prepared to pivot.
“That is what will make you an innovator.”
Austin Clayton is receiving a bachelor’s degree in integrated marketing communications. He said he was inspired by Hickman’s speech.
“It was incredible to hear not only the story of her family and how she made pathways from that, but also her ability to learn at the university and apply what she learned to her life in ways that she didn’t even expect,” said Clayton, who is originally from Dallas. “We don’t know what the future holds, but we know that the university prepares us for it.”
Saturday’s ceremony acknowledged faculty and staff members who were awarded for their work in research, creative achievement, teaching and service. Among the awards announced were the Frist awards for student service, the Distinguished Research and Creative Achievement Award, Elsie Hood Outstanding Teacher Award and St. Amand Outstanding Teacher Award for nontenured faculty.
Morgan Whited, a biochemistry degree candidate from Marion, Arkansas, addressed her fellow graduates as senior class president. She announced the senior class gift, which was made possible by the second-annual “Mr. University” competition, which raised more than $2,500 in ticket sales.
“We decided to honor one of our own,” Whited said. “The senior class gift will benefit the Thomas Hayes Mayo Lab foundation.
“Class of 2023, we’re leaving it better than we found it, and we’re better for it.”
Commencement ceremonies began Wednesday (May 10) with a commissioning for graduates at the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. On Thursday at The Sandy and John Black Pavilion at Ole Miss, the schools of Law and Pharmacy conducted their respective ceremonies and recipients of doctoral degrees were honored at a hooding ceremony.
Degrees were presented to graduates from their respective schools throughout the day on Friday and Saturday, and ceremonies will continue Sunday.
“It’s really exciting – this is my last of four graduations between the Honors College, our CME (Center for Manufacturing Excellence) and engineering,” said Maren McSparin, an Evansville, Illinois, native receiving her bachelor’s in chemical engineering. “So, it’s exciting to be done and have it all culminate into one final ceremony.”
D.J. Russell, from Corinth, is receiving a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and moving to Miami.
“It’s surreal to be done,” Russell said. “I’m going to remember all the times in the Grove, the football games, winning the national championship – I can’t believe it’s over.”
Boyce told the graduates that he hopes their next chapter brings them purpose, passion, joy and success.
“As you go forward in life, I know you will be outstanding and passionate ambassadors for Ole Miss through your example, continuing your trajectory of accomplishment and fulfilling your dreams in the process,” he said.
“And remember – and this is very, very important, graduates – that we are always here cheering on your successes, and eager to welcome you whenever you return to the spot that ever calls.”
To read stories of students from the Class of 2023, visit the university’s Journey to Commencement website.