In-person commencement a time to celebrate for print journalist

Peggy Reisser enjoyed a successful journalism career that included many years covering the news for the Nashville Banner and then the Memphis Commercial Appeal. The Ole Miss graduate added another credential to her impressive resume when she received her Master of Arts in Strategic Communication on Nov. 21 from the University of Tennessee at Martin. Reisser joined 326 spring, summer and fall 2020 participants who celebrated commencement at the Kathleen and Tom Elam Center. The in-person commencement exercises were held at 10 a.m., 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. to allow for social distancing. Students choosing not to participate in person could watch via Facebook and YouTube.

UT Martin held an all-virtual spring commencement in May because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the fall ceremony was timed in advance of online final exams, which begin Dec. 1. Students will not return to campus following the Thanksgiving holiday.

Reisser, born and raised in Memphis, began her journalism career fresh out of college at the now-closed Nashville Banner afternoon newspaper where she covered the legislature and state government. She returned to Memphis after five years in the state capital and worked at the Commercial Appeal until 2012 when layoffs claimed her management position. Following a year as a freelance writer, Reisser joined the UT Health Science Center Office of Communications and Marketing as a communications specialist and now communications manager.

“I have loved my career in journalism,” Reisser said. “I was made for that, but I have loved working for UTHSC because it combines the best of my skills, challenged my skills and given me an opportunity to grow my skills while I can promote all the wonderful things the university is doing.”

Thanks to the university’s support for employees to improve their skills, she began to consider graduate-school options. “I have spent a life as a storyteller, but in terms of business knowledge and organizational knowledge, all I had was what I had learned on the job in decades in newspapers,” she said. “That is a very different kind of operation, and so I wanted to learn those skills and started looking around and heard about this program. …

“It wasn’t a journalism program, which some other places had. I felt like I could teach the journalism program, but it (UT Martin’s program) taught skills like leadership, and organizational communication, and theory and all the things that make me a better communicator.” As a non-traditional student, Reisser appreciated her faculty members’ responsiveness within the structure of an online program that required her to visit campus only once. “I have never felt isolated or not a part of the university,” she said. “I have learned so much.”

“It wasn’t a journalism program, which some other places had. I felt like I could teach the journalism program, but it (UT Martin’s program) taught skills like leadership, and organizational communication, and theory and all the things that make me a better communicator.”

That being said, returning to college wasn’t always easy. From Zoom classes to statistics, she had to adjust to new learning methods and challenging course material. “But the program is built so that you have a decent amount of time to get things in as long as you stay organized and don’t save everything until the last minute.”

Reisser participated in the 2 p.m. ceremony, which included those scheduled to receive master’s degrees when the semester ends. Like other graduating students, she was concerned that an in-person commencement might not happen because of the pandemic.

“I am thrilled,” she said about the opportunity to walk across the commencement stage. “I was so sad that we were not going to get to walk because from the day I started it (the program) I had a vision – the commencement – and I was really sad if we were not going to be able to do that. … I’m just really proud, and I’m grateful that I found this program, and I would encourage anybody who’s a communicator to take this program. … It’s been so helpful.”

Besides her personal sense of accomplishment, Reisser’s family shares the excitement of seeing her reach this milestone. Reisser’s children, especially, have taken notice. “It’s made my children, who are both adults, really proud and thoughtful of what they’ll do to increase their education,” she said.


Earlier UT Martin Chancellor Keith Carver presided over the morning ceremony, delivered the commencement address and conferred degrees. For his remarks, Carver referenced speaking at a commencement ceremony several years ago at this alma mater. That commencement marked 20 years since his own graduation from college. “Looking back, I realized how much I had learned in those 20 years, so I’ve decided to share 10 of those life lessons with you, today’s Skyhawk graduates,” he said. “Let’s call this ‘10 Things I Wish I’d Known 20 Years Ago.’”

He began by noting the importance of personal decision-making. “Every decision in life you make impacts someone else,” Carver said. “Think about the implications of every choice you make.” He talked the importance of working in a job setting as a team and how “idle talk is useless in the workplace and the communities.”

Still referencing a work setting, he advised the graduates to, “Take tasks off your boss’s desk every time you can. Leadership is a lonely activity, and to those men and women who we serve in the workplace, (they) have numerous demands on their time, and they need to find people that they can trust. Become someone worthy of that trust.”

He spoke about the importance of humility and that everyone can be replaced. “No single person is essential to the success of an organization,” he said. “We will never be bigger than the organizations and workplaces that we serve.”

“Everybody has a first name,” he added. “All people have worth. All people deserve our respect. It is essential that we know those people around us who are investing in the success of our organization and in our own personal success. Get to know their interests, their joys and their pain.”

“All people have worth. All people deserve our respect. It is essential that we know those people around us who are investing in the success of our organization and in our own personal success. Get to know their interests, their joys and their pain.”

He urged the graduates to do their best in any task and, at the end of the day, to make their families a priority.  “Dinner with your family is important. We’re all busy,” he said. “We will never complete all the tasks on our to-do lists each day.

“But it is essential that every day we do invest in those people that we love and that love us. The work will always be there. It’s important to build relationships with those who bring us renewal and joy, too.”

Carver closed his remarks as he had begun by noting the importance of making good choices. “When you don’t know what to do, remember to do no harm until you do,” he said. “Find good, trusted mentors and seek their counsel. Wisdom comes from careful reflection and life experience, so seek help from those who you trust when faced with difficult decisions.”

Also making appearances by video during each ceremony were the Rev. Amanda Crice, campus minister, UT Martin Wesley Foundation, who offered the opening invocation; UT President Randy Boyd, who brought greetings from the UT System; UT Martin Student Government Association President Hunter McCloud, of Portland, who offered congratulations from the student body; and UT Martin Alumni Association President Victor Andrews, a 1986 graduate from Franklin, Tenn., who welcomed the newest university graduates and urged them to stay connected with their alma mater. The ceremonies concluded with a performance of the alma mater by the UTM Virtual Choir, recorded and edited by Joseph Sam, 2010 UT Martin graduate.

Carver paused during the program to offer a moment of silence for UT Martin head men’s basketball coach Anthony Stewart who died Nov. 15. His son Parker, a member of the Skyhawk basketball team, participated in the 2 p.m. commencement ceremony where he was recognized for earning his Master of Business Administration degree, which will be his second UT Martin diploma.

Carver was notified after the 10 a.m. ceremony that he was identified as a COVID-19 close contact and assigned his commencement duties to Dr. Andy Lewter, vice chancellor for student affairs, for the day’s final two events. All three ceremonies are archived at facebook.com/utmartin.

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