The university's newest alumni were hailed with cheers and applause from an audience that came close to filling Eblen Center's many seats and bleachers, and they were challenged to make their lives and careers in Tennessee by retired state Sen. Anna Belle O'Brien of Crossville.
"It will take all of you working together to make our state a leading force in the new economic world," O'Brien said in her commencement address. "It will take your knowledge, your skills and your education to lead us.... I'm counting on you to be the stepping stones to make Tennessee a great place to live."
During more than two decades of service in Tennessee's General Assembly, O'Brien became the first woman appointed to the post of committee chair and the first woman to chair the Senate Democratic Caucus. Her contributions include successfully guiding legislation through the assembly that aided public education. And it was public education O'Brien chose to focus on in her address Saturday, taking the opportunity, she said, to talk about what is right in the education system in America, particularly in Tennessee.
"You and I hear so much of what is wrong, but I'm very proud of what is right.
"The first thing that is right is accessibility of schools like TTU that give you degrees in a short length of time (and) where faculty know you." The second factor that is right, O'Brien said, is the commitment public education in the U.S. holds to the democratic ideals of an informed citizenry. Other significant successes can be found in the research, knowledge, technology and other advances that flow from institutions of higher learning into all segments of society. Economic advances are tied to this, O'Brien said, and she traced the progress the South as made since the 1930s to the present -- progress education has been a key engine for.
Today further economic progress depends upon the ability to "retool the economy for demands of new, more technologically oriented society and position ourselves to participate in a complex global economy that no one fully understands," O'Brien said. Products of the U.S. educational system like Saturday's graduates, she added, have an obligation and are uniquely qualified to provide leadership in this regard.
The commencement exercises brought the number of Tennessee Tech graduates since 1915 to more than 43,000. Saturday's graduates represented 38 undergraduate and 16 graduate fields and hailed from 80 Tennessee counties, 21 states and eight other nations. Their birthdates ranged from 1928 to 1978.
Among the graduating class were two individuals receiving their doctorates in engineering: Caner Demirodogen, whose major professor was J. Richard Houghton of Mechanical Engineering; and Jigang Jia, whose major professor was Pritindra Chowdhuri of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Jia, who was present for the ceremony, received a strong round of applause from the audience.
Tennessee Tech President Angelo Volpe recognized the contributions of Maurice Ethridge, professor of sociology and philosophy, who is retiring this year and served as marshal for Saturday's commencement exercises. The president also presented the university's faculty awards to four individuals: the Caplenor Faculty Research Award to biology professor Sharon Berk of the Center for Water Resources; Outstanding Faculty Awards for Teaching to associate professor of physics Stephen Robinson and assistant professor of English Heidemarie Weidner; and the Outstanding Faculty Award for Professional Service to home economics professor Cathy Hix Cunningham.
Earlier in the day, six military science students in the graduating class received commissions in the U.S. Army, including Ralph Heidel Jr. of Cookeville, a political science graduate who was honored as the Distinguished Military Graduate for 1997.