MURFREESBORO — Hundreds of incoming MTSU freshmen and their families gathered inside Murphy Center Sunday afternoon to be formally welcomed into the Blue Raider family during the annual Convocation ceremony.
Speaker R. Dwayne Betts challenged the new students gathered in Hale Arena to “hold tenaciously on to a dream that will carry you when things are difficult.”
Betts, an author, poet, essayist and national spokesman for the Campaign for Youth Justice, wrote the memoir, “A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison.” His book was selected as the 2013 Summer Reading Selection for MTSU and Rutherford County.
“You’re going to college and part of you says you’ve already made it,” he told students Sunday. “But I wonder what part of you is willing to have a dream that makes absolutely no sense right now. Because those are the dreams that change the world.”
University Convocation formally welcomes new freshmen into the MTSU learning community. Faculty members marched in their regalia as the MTSU Band of Blue performed, and the traditions and rituals of the university were explained to the newest members of the MTSU family.
“This day also marks the beginning of many significant new relationships for you as new entering students,” MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee said. “You’ll meet individuals who will literally change your lives.”
In his book, Betts chronicles his experience after picking up a pistol for the first time as a 16-year-old honors student and carjacking and robbing a stranger. He spent nine years in prison and emerged to become a bookstore manager, establish book clubs for African-American boys and earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland.
“While I was in prison I had this dream of being a writer, but the dream was totally self-centered. The dream was about how I could prove to the world that I was different,” he said Sunday. “I didn’t get the opportunity to actually be a writer until I was under the most intense pressure of my life as a college student.”
Betts also urged the students to be avid readers, telling them “my preparation for college consisted solely of reading. Reading is fundamental.”
Freshman Keith Hollingsworth, a mathematical sciences major, was among students who had read Betts’ book over the summer. Hollingsworth, whose parents are living in Italy on military assignment but whose grandparents live in nearby Mt. Juliet, came from his new dorm room in Lyon Hall to hear Betts’ remarks.
“I thought it was very inspiring,” Hollingsworth said of the book. “It just makes me believe that if I work hard enough I can get anywhere I want to be. It was a really good story.”
Freshman Mahkayla Grogan of Memphis arrived carrying a copy of Betts’ book, excited to hear his remarks and also holding hopes of getting her book signed by the author afterward. She too was inspired by Betts’ story of redemption.
“He learned through prison how (his mind) wasn’t right,” Grogan said. “I enjoyed reading it very much.”
In his welcoming remarks, Scott Boyd, MTSU theater professor and president of the Faculty Senate, told the new students that MTSU offered a fertile ground for developing them as students and individuals.
“Tomorrow morning, the next chapter of your life truly begins,” he said, noting Monday’s start of classes for most students. “You’re exploration for growth, for knowledge, for achievement, starts down a new an exciting path that will take you places you have only dreamt about … There will also be a lot of hard, roll- up-your-sleeves type work.”
Incoming student body president James Lee of Clarksville, Tenn., led the crowd in the reading of the "True Blue Pledge," which reaffirms the values of the university.
Following Convocation, the annual President’s Picnic was held in the Walnut Grove at the center of campus between the Cope Administration Building and Peck Hall, to celebrate the new academic year.
Both events were part of MTSU’s annual “Week of Welcome” celebration, which continues through Sept. 6. For a complete “Week of Welcome” schedule, visit www.mtsu.edu/nsfp/welcome_nsfp.php .