Friday, March 28, 2014

[470] MTSU legislative interns get close-up view of state politics 13 students served lawmakers during spring session

NASHVILLE — A friend told MTSU senior Timecia Terry that she would be well served by participating in the university’s legislative internship program, which gives students an inside look at the ins and outs of lawmaking in the state’s capital.

Wrapping up her internship with state Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, and approaching her May graduation, the political science major from Nashville is thrilled she heeded her friend’s advice.

“I’ve learned a lot. I’ve met a lot of great people,” said Terry, who had previously completed a judicial branch internship. “I tried to get as much experience as possible. … It’s very broad. There are a lot of different things you can learn.”

Terry was among 13 MTSU students who worked as legislative interns during the most recent session of the Tennessee General Assembly in Nashville. Twelve of them gathered recently on the 30th floor of the Tennessee Tower for a celebration luncheon in which university officials, lawmakers and alumni thanked them for their commitment.

Dr. Mark Byrnes, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, said the internships provide students an opportunity to get hands-on experience surrounding state legislative processes. Among intern responsibilities are bill analysis, constituent work, research and general office work.

“We send our students to Nashville for an entire legislative session to work for either a member or committee,” Byrnes said. “The idea is to give them hands-on experience and experiential learning to supplement what they learn in the classroom.”

Students are selected through a competitive process for the paid internships, and though many are political science majors, the positions are open to any major, Byrnes said. MTSU funds internships for students serving the Rutherford County legislative delegation. MTSU students can also vie for spots with other lawmakers and committees through the broader state legislative internship program, which has been around for four decades and is open to students at colleges and universities across the state.

Jake King, a senior political science major from Murfreesboro, interned with state Rep. Dawn White, R-Murfreesboro. King learned that the atmosphere surrounding a piece of legislation can change quickly within the halls of the Capitol.

“The main thing I’ve taken away from this internship is to expect the unexpected,” King said with a wry smile. “You go in thinking, ‘I know all about state government,’ and you have no idea.

“They’ll say one thing one day in committee, and then the next day it’s turned upside down and (lawmakers) send a bill back into subcommittee. They’ll have to start over,” said King, who offered a bit of advice to future interns. “Always be on your toes and be willing to help wherever needed, and you’ll have the greatest experience, I promise.”

For the interns, “the vast majority say it’s the best thing they ever did in college,” Byrnes said. “Occasionally we’ll get one that says, ‘Ooh. Politics is not for me.’ But to me that’s a valid response; they’ve still learned something.”

President Sidney A. McPhee lauded the program for matching the students’ classroom instruction with the real-world application of those theories in the General Assembly.

“What they learn during the internships, you can’t teach that in the classroom,” McPhee said. “Many of the alums who’ve gone through this program have gone on to take important positions within government and private industry.”

McPhee offered his congratulations directly to the students during the luncheon, calling them among “the best and brightest that our university has to offer.”

“As I talk to the legislators … they say incredible things about the quality of the work that you do, your dedication and your commitment to excellence. You represent the best of the best at our university.”

State Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, was so impressed with intern Sara Mejia-Gomez that he involved her in the research for his proposal to study the feasibility of a monorail from Murfreesboro to Nashville.

“The quality of the students that I get in my office is simply amazing,” said Ketron, who added that he plans to hire Mejia-Gomez in his private business in Murfreesboro after she graduates in May. “It’s such a great program.”

Mejia-Gomez, a senior international relations major from Brentwood, Tenn., said working on the monorail study project, in which she was a lead researcher, has given her confidence that the experience will pay off later in her professional career.

“There are so many opportunities,” she said. “If you do a good job, you can show others that you are a force to be reckoned with. … You can make a name for yourself.”

Nuraldeen Brifkani, a junior English major with a minor in political science, interned in the office of state Rep. Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, chairman of the Finance, Ways and Means Committee in the House of Representatives.

“It’s one thing to study politics, to study law, to study policies in the classroom. It’s another thing to be right there when things are happening in real time,” said Brifkani, a Nashville resident. “It’s a very mind-opening experience. It’s a great way to make connections. … You really get to meet a plethora of people, from different backgrounds and offices.”

Donna Morgan, administrator of the state’s legislative internships, said the relationship with MTSU has greatly benefitted the program, which places roughly 100 interns a year.

“MTSU, with Dr. McPhee and Dean Byrne’s leadership, is a huge supporter of this program, sending us some of the best students from the state of Tennessee,” she said.

[469] Musician George Dennehy shares infectious message of joy at MTSU

MURFREESBORO — George Dennehy offers many messages in his music — love, gratitude, determination, acceptance, faithfulness — but the one that seems to permeate the young singer/songwriter's conversation is joy.

If he's not chuckling at a tale he's about to tell, he's leaping up to demonstrate an unexpected challenge to his audience.

"I really wanna see you guys try to write your name with one of your feet. You don't have to participate, but if you wanna be my friend …" the Virginia resident said with a wide grin Wednesday at MTSU during a special master class and Q-and-A session before the annual VSA Tennessee Young Soloist competition.

Several in the audience of about 50 students complied with Dennehy's request, pulling off socks and shoes and clutching pens with chilled toes to scrawl across scraps of paper. Dennehy inspected the attempts, praising the writers for their efforts.

"You guys practice, and when I come back, we'll start a footwriting club here on campus," he joked. Dennehy then whipped off his soft driving moccasins and demonstrated how he's used a pencil since he learned to write as a young child.

Dennehy, who was born without arms, was a featured performer at the Young Soloist event in MTSU's Wright Music Building, which included eight talented young Tennessee musicians aiming for a national contest in June in Washington, D.C.

VSA Tennessee is the state organization on arts and disability that was established on the MTSU campus. It's also an affiliate of VSA, the international organization on arts and disabilities founded in 1974 by Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith and formerly known as Very Special Arts.

An internationally recognized musician and inspirational speaker, Dennehy is matter-of-fact about the challenges he faces every day, as well as the accomplishments.

An American family adopted Dennehy at 18 months old from a Romanian orphanage. He learned to play the cello by age 8 and advanced in classical music until he was performing with regional orchestras. Dennehy also taught himself guitar, electric bass and basic piano — all played with his feet — to be "normal, to try to fit in."

A homemade YouTube video of Dennehy’s acoustic version of the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris” catapulted him into Internet fame, leading to a live performance of the song with the band at Musikfest 2012 in Bethlehem, Pa., and what has become a whirlwind musical career. (A portion of that performance is included in this PBS story about Dennehy at

He performed an acoustic cover of Howie Day's "Collide" for his afternoon MTSU audience, demonstrating the style that's making him a successful career as both a musician and speaker advocating for adoption and disability awareness.

"Everybody just wants to be loved. Everybody wants a buddy. Everybody just wants a high five. Well, except for me. If you try and give me a high five, it turns into an awkward situation real fast," Dennehy said with a laugh, demonstrating the "foot five," a quick tap of shoe soles in solidarity, he uses to meet the need instead.

The self-described "goofball" explained that while his adoptive family has supported all his efforts, he became deeply depressed in middle and high school because of bullying and frustration over his physical differences.

Now 20 and joyfully married with a baby on the way, Dennehy recalled a point when he seriously contemplated suicide, "wrote a note and everything," and then experienced an abrupt emotional transformation that led him to realize that he had work to do on earth.

"I'm a strong believer that no one is here by accident," he said. "I believe that every dream, no matter how big or how small or how totally crazy, is possible to achieve. I believe we're all here for our dreams. And we're all here to help each other out. We're here to do something bigger than ourselves."

Helping out at the VSA competition was the role of MTSU professor Lori Kissinger's Organizational Communication in Communities EXL Class, which handled logistics for this year’s event as they did the 2013 concert.

Kissinger's students regularly help with VSA events as part of her experiential learning classes, coordinating events like last fall’s National Christmas Tree decorating party and the fall 2012 "Golden Ratio Project," an arts performance that traveled to Athens, Greece, for an international arts education exchange.

For more information about VSA Tennessee, visit or contact Kissinger at or 615-210-8819.

[468] ‘Steinway Artist’ Heather Conner plans free public concert April 1 at MTSU

MURFREESBORO — “Steinway Artist” Heather Conner will present a free public piano concert at 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 1, in Hinton Music Hall inside MTSU's Wright Music Building.

Conner, who is a professor of piano at the University of Utah, will perform works by Frédéric Chopin, including “Nocturne in B Major,” “Barcarolle in F-Sharp Major” and “Étude in C-Sharp Minor,” along with Franz Schubert’s “Sonata in C Minor” and Samuel Barber’s “Souvenirs for Piano Four-Hands, Ballet Suite.”

She’ll be joined on the Barber piece by pianist Caleb Harris, a professor of music at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley.

MTSU’s School of Music became one of only 140-plus “All-Steinway Schools” in the world — and the first in Tennessee — in 2002, boasting 60 of the renowned instruments for student, faculty and guest performer use in its performance spaces, teaching studios and music classrooms.

“Steinway Artists,” who perform exclusively on Steinway pianos, come from every musical genre. Along with Conner, they include more than 1,600 esteemed artists like The 5 Browns, Judy Collins, Harry Connick Jr., Billy Joel, Evengy Kissin, Diana Krall, Lang Lang and Jason Moran and the late Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Vladimir Horowitz and Cole Porter.

Conner holds degrees in piano performance from the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, Yale University and the Manhattan School of Music. As a Steinway artist she has presented solo recitals in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Moscow, Salzburg, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Salt Lake City and more. She has won first prize at several international and national competitions, including the Hilton Head Island International Piano Competition and the Kingsville International Young Performers Competition, and has performed on numerous occasions as a soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Most recently, Conner performed a solo recital at the Zwischen den Jahren festival in Antweiler, Germany. In 2006, she appeared as recitalist and artist teacher at several venues in Seoul, South Korea. 

Conner has recorded commercially for the Naxos and Centaur labels and has been heard on NPR’s “Performance Today” as well as other radio shows.

For details on more MTSU School of Music performances, call 615-898-2493 or visit and click on the "Concert Calendar" link.

[467] Groundbreaking statewide college conference focus of ‘MTSU On the Record’

MURFREESBORO — The next edition of the “MTSU On the Record” radio program will preview the university’s inaugural LGBT+ College Conference.

Host Gina Logue’s interview with MTSU students Joshua Rigsby and Elizabeth Villasana will air from 5:30 to 6 p.m. Monday, March 31, and from 8 to 8:30 a.m. Sunday, April 6, on WMOT-FM (89.5 and

Rigsby and Villasana are members of MT Lambda, the student organization hosting the first statewide collegiate conference in Tennessee to focus on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. The gathering is slated for April 10-12 with the theme of “The Advocate in You.”

Student organizations from more than 30 colleges and universities along with corporate and community leaders are slated to be in attendance.

“Our overall goal, with all of our sessions and all of the speakers that we have lined up, is to equip students across the state with the tools they need to go back and create a positive change on their individual campuses,” said Rigsby, who is president of MT Lambda.

The conference will be the culmination of this year’s SpringOut Pride Week at MTSU, an LGBT+ celebration with various events scheduled for April 7-9.

MT Lambda has supported the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community at MTSU since its founding in 1988. It is the oldest collegiate student organization of its kind in Tennessee.

To listen to previous “MTSU On the Record” programs, go to the “Audio Clips” archives at

For more information, contact Logue at 615-898-5081 or WMOT-FM at 615-898-2800.

[466] Soledad O’Brien tells ‘meaningful stories’ to MTSU audience in March 26 address

MURFREESBORO — Recalling colorful anecdotes from her life and career, journalist Soledad O’Brien charmed and enlightened her audience at MTSU Wednesday, March 26.

The award-winning broadcaster best known for her documentary work with CNN delivered the keynote address for MTSU’s National Women’s History Month celebration at the Student Union Ballroom.

To view a video clip of O’Brien’s speech, go to

O’Brien spoke of how being the daughter of a white Australian father and a black Cuban mother who united at a time when interracial marriage was illegal gave her an appreciation for standing her ground when challenged.

“I think there’s a special bravery in deciding that you’re going to sit firmly on the right side of history, and my parents were certainly my first examples of forging on in spite of disapproval, in spite of everyone saying ‘it can’t be done, it shouldn’t be done,’” she said.

O’Brien hosted and produced acclaimed documentary series on diversity for CNN as well, including “Black in America,” “Latino in America” and “Unwelcome: The Muslims Next Door,” which looked at the controversy surrounding the construction of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro.

“I’ve had opportunities to tell stories of lots of marginalized people, and I think it really is where I began to find my voice as a reporter,” said O’Brien.

At CNN, O’Brien distinguished herself as co-anchor of “American Morning” and “Starting Point with Soledad O’Brien” and with reports on the London terrorism attacks of 2005, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Japan earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

O’Brien joined Al-Jazeera America last year as a special correspondent. She and her production company, Starfish Media Group, provide short-form segments to “America Tonight,” the network’s prime-time current affairs magazine program. Starfish also produces hourlong documentaries for the network.

She said she formed her own company in June 2013 after encountering corporate resistance to the kind of stories that she wanted to report for CNN.

“I wanted to tell those meaningful stories and wade through some of the garbage that sometimes makes up television news,” O’Brien said. “I didn’t feel particularly courageous. I did feel that I’m honest and that I could live with the fallout from honesty.”

With her husband, O’Brien created the Soledad O’Brien & Brad Raymond Foundation to help young women gain the experiences, education and resources to overcome barriers to success. The foundation provides scholarships for young girls across the country.

“She’s so inspiring,” said Rachel Harmon, an MTSU alumna who will become an adjunct professor of political science in fall 2014. “She’s someone I’ve followed and looked up to for a long time.”

Harmon also works for the Franklin, Tenn., office of Free for Life International, a nonprofit organization that fights human trafficking.

“Last year, we rescued 123 girls, but, unfortunately, that was out of 15,000 that were trafficked in the country of Nepal,” said Harmon. “So hearing what she had to say about making the difference for one person at a time really resonates with what we do.”

For information on upcoming National Women’s History Month events at MTSU, go to