Samuel Steel joined other graduating University of Tennessee at Martin seniors during both the traditional Grand Finale celebration walk April 25 on the main campus and commencement May 4 in the Kathleen and Tom Elam Center. However, Steel traveled a bit farther than most to cross the commencement stage. The Redmond, Washington, resident and his family made their first visit to Martin to celebrate Steel’s accomplishment of earning an online master’s degree.
Steel was born in California, moved often through his teenage years and eventually attended the University of California Santa Barbara, where he earned an economics degree in 1987. His first career was in public accounting as a CPA and auditor with then “Big Eight” accounting firm Arthur Andersen, but life events and changing interests led him to the consulting world as a part-time chief financial officer. Steel has since traveled the world working as a CFO for mining and mineral companies and has earned a good living, but he wanted to accomplish more.
“I just wasn’t having the kind of success I wanted to, and I didn’t really have any credibility or credentials, and I thought, ‘I want to get a (master’s) degree,’” he said. Steel first considered a degree in mining, but he had some agriculture and farming background and was interested in resource sustainability. He searched “natural resources” on the Web and eventually discovered UT Martin’s highly regarded online Master of Science in Agriculture and Natural Resources.
What he discovered was as a doable and affordable degree-program option that accommodated work travel and raising a young family. He considers himself a good student, but the degree program was challenging, especially the large amount of homework required. “I don’t know if I’ve ever over achieved. … I’m one of those people that I’m like really good at everything, but I’m not the best at anything,” he said as he reflected on his many work and life experiences. “Whatever it is that I apply myself to, I have to work hard.” His efforts paid off, and a journey across the country to receive his degree was an opportunity he could not miss.
Coming to Northwest Tennessee was an eye-opening experience as he connected in person for the first time with the area, campus and people that made his online degree possible. “I was blown away,” he said, adding, “It’s like a big old campus, … and I thought, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’” His visits around the university eventually led to a proud walk across the commencement stage Saturday when he received his degree. His wife, Joana Mae, and seven-month-old daughter, Chloe Ann, were in the audience to share the moment.
Steel readily talks about his faith and gives God credit for the journey that brought him to Tennessee. He will rely on his faith for what lies ahead, which likely includes more education and maybe work in Tennessee. “When we learn to let go, then we can learn to receive,” he said of trusting faith to provide direction in his life. As for the benefits of education, he said, “I love learning. Learning just makes me feel so different about everything, and it’s just such a really good feeling.”
UT Martin Chancellor Keith Carver welcomed the capacity audience and later conferred degrees to students from 62 Tennessee counties, 28 states outside of Tennessee and seven nations in addition to the U.S. The university’s Office of Academic Records reported that 718 students were eligible to graduate at the conclusion of spring semester. A total of 550 graduates participated in commencement exercises, which included 526 undergraduates and 24 graduates.
Following a piano performance by graduating music major Gian Garma, of Martin, Carver introduced the commencement speaker, Dr. Kenyatta Lovett, executive director for Complete Tennessee. The veteran administrator is responsible for developing and implementing the programming necessary to support Tennessee’s vision to increase the number of state residents who hold postsecondary degrees by year 2025. He previously served as assistant vice chancellor at the Tennessee Board of Regents and also held several administrative posts at Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin.
Lovett used the symbol of a fence as he congratulated graduates for overcoming the challenges that stand in the way of completing a college education. “The fence represents the hurdles, the hardships, and the heroics that make up your success journey in this college experience,” he said. “Some actions were minor; others tested every fiber of your being. The fence symbolizes the barriers faced when you first make the choice to enroll in college and all that took place to bring you here to this point in your life.”
He reminded the audience that some have a clearer view than others for finding a way over or through this fence. His father was a college faculty member, so he was better prepared than others “to see over the fence.” For others, the way to college success is more difficult, and he gave the example of a college friend who faced many challenges in his quest to earn a degree.
“When I think about completing college and the challenges and hardships of what many of our students face, I’m reminded of one of my former classmates who his journey started at the front door of his home in Brooklyn, New York, right around August, time for school to start,” Lovett said. “He had a duffle bag in his hands, and his parents were watching TV on the couch in that front part of the house. And he simply said, ‘I’m getting ready to go to go to college.’ And they just looked at him and told him, ‘Good luck.’”
The friend rode a bus from Brooklyn to Washington, D.C., where Lovett and others met him that first night. A homeless shelter and Lovett’s floor became places for the friend to land until he could secure a job to pay for room and board and the rest of his college expenses. “So, make no mistake,” Lovett said. “What you have accomplished today is a great feat, and I think of that fence and what it means to each and every one of us, knowing that some have had more hurdles to cross than others.”
Lovett also noted a significant upside to the challenges that individuals face when earning a college degree. “Whatever the story, however the journey played out for each of you, you have successfully crossed that fence that has alluded so many,” he said. “Were it not for the hurdles, hardships and heroics, you would never know what greatness was inside of you.”
He closed his remarks by urging the new graduates to give back through their money and time. “I ask each and every one of you, as you venture into the world after this commencement, to make a deliberate effort to do something about this growing fence,” he said. “Give consistently and cheerfully to the university’s foundation to help the most-in-need students with the resources they need to complete college. Mentor enrolled and soon-to-be college students, so that many may have the encouraging voice they need to know that there is promise and hope beyond the completion fence.”
Lovett concluded with a quote about overcoming barriers from legendary boxer Muhammad Ali: “Impossible is just a word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”
Dr. Linda Martin, UT System vice president for academic affairs and student success, congratulated graduates on behalf of the University of Tennessee and highlighted the accomplishments of several class members. “We are excited about the opportunities afforded to you as graduates of UT,” she said. “Graduates, it’s our expectation that you will use the knowledge you have gained for the betterment of your family, community, the state of Tennessee and for all of humanity.”