MARTIN, Tenn. — Dr. Renee Bailey Iacona quoted writer Charles Dickens, actress Gloria Swanson and singer Justin Bieber while encouraging UT Martin graduates to “never say never” as she provided the December commencement address for University of Tennessee at Martin. Iacona, of Philadelphia, Pa., works for AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals and returned to her alma mater as she spoke to a capacity crowd Saturday in the Kathleen and Tom Elam Center. More than 500 graduates from summer and fall were scheduled to receive diplomas.
Before the ceremony, Katelyn Watt, 22, of Medina, a Milan High School graduate, talked about her plans to become a 4-H extension agent and has already interviewed for a position. “I'm excited. It’s been a long road, and sometimes it’s like ‘I can’t do it anymore,’ but it’s here,” she said of receiving her degree.
John Nicholson, 22, of Centerville, Tenn., and a Hickman County High School graduate, received his bachelor’s degree in communications with a concentration in broadcasting and a minor in theatre. He described college graduation as “surreal” but was excited about commencement, and added, “it’s really great to finally be here.”
Antonio Thomason, of Savannah, stood in the concourse holding a bouquet of flowers for his daughter, Alison, who was getting in line to receive her bachelor of university studies degree. “Oh, I am so excited. I’m glad that this is the last child that I have (in college),” he said as he smiled. As he walked away with a grandchild tugging at his hand, his wife, Patricia, added, “We are so happy for her and proud, because she is the third one in the family that has graduated from college. So we are very proud of her.”
Dr. Tom Rakes, UT Martin chancellor, presided over commencement and welcomed the crowd, noting that the graduates represented 48 Tennessee counties, 10 states and four foreign countries. Dr. Joe DiPietro, University of Tennessee president, later congratulated the graduates and conferred degrees.
Rakes introduced Iacona, who heads the alliance and operations office for AstraZeneca’s global biometrics function. She holds two graduate degrees from Vanderbilt University and received the “Outstanding Alumni Award” from UT Martin during homecoming in October.
Raised in Hendersonville near Nashville, Iacona always expected to attend Vanderbilt University. But when she attended UT Martin’s inaugural Governor’s School for the Humanities, her first “never say never” decision was made. Once enrolled at the university, she said her life changed in unexpected ways.
“First of all, I got involved in an organization that has changed my life, Alpha Delta Pi sorority, where I have stayed involved since I graduated, and I now serve … on our board of directors, which is known as our grand council,” she said. The opportunity places her in contact with ADPi alumnae, volunteers and members across the country, including chapters at close to 200 college campuses.
Next, she recalled taking two classes, genetics and honors psychology, that influenced her future. “It was through these two classes that I was offered the opportunity at the end of my freshman year to join the University Scholars program,” she said, adding, “For the next few years, I learned more about science in a way that the classroom wouldn’t have provided. I later graduated as a University Scholar and found a love of science that has continued to today.”
She went on study breast cancer and genetic susceptibility at Vanderbilt, calling on what she had learned in her freshman genetics class. “Today I use these skills as I work for AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals,” she said. “I began in the pharmaceutical industry in 2001 … and now I lead a global department.”
When she considers her own life, Iacona said she never considered doing many of the things she has done. “So graduates, as I reflect back on my life, and all the ‘nevers’ I use to say, I have become a true believer now on ‘never saying never.’” She then pointed to some famous people who shared the same philosophy.
Iacona noted use of the phrase in the Charles Dickens novel The Pickwick Papers and quoted the late actress Gloria Swanson who said, “Never say never, for if you live long enough, chances are you will not be able to abide by the restrictions. …” Even singer Justin Bieber named a 2011 concert film “Never Say Never,” and she quoted inspirational lyrics from his song by the same name.
“So graduates, today is a day to dream, a day to celebrate your accomplishments and for families to be proud of what your graduate has done, and to help them dream about all that is ahead for them,” she said.
Iacona closed by admittedly contradicting her own theme and suggesting “nevers” that the graduates should follow. She urged them to never forget their time in college and to “never forget to give back.”