Graduate sets new career course with May 7 graduation

Shay Briggs knows how to adapt to new situations, including job changes that led her to chart a new career path. The first leg of the Lexington, Tennessee, resident’s journey to that new beginning was completed May 7 when she received her bachelor’s degree in geoscience during the first of four University of Tennessee at Martin commencement ceremonies. The ceremonies held May 7-8 accommodated COVID-19 protocols and welcomed 569 in-person graduates over the two days in the Kathleen and Tom Elam Center. Students who did not participate in person were recognized virtually during the livestream of each ceremony.

Briggs, who spoke about her graduation following the Friday event, experienced her first major employment change in 2008 when she lost her automotive industry job. She entered Jackson State Community College and earned an associate degree in computer science, which she received 10 years ago to the day that she graduated from UT Martin. Briggs then worked for a software company, but that position was moved to California, so she decided to pursue her interest in the emergency management field. She couldn’t find an academic program that was a perfect match for her passion, decided to pursue geoscience and started at UT Martin in fall 2017.

Her path to a bachelor’s degree included familiar challenges for the non-traditional student. In addition to adding commuting time to her routine, she interacted regularly with younger students in a curriculum that requires hands-on experiences in field-trip settings, but Briggs found her place. “The group of students that I went through with have been fantastic,” she said. “I couldn’t ask for a better experience.”

“The group of students that I went through with have been fantastic,” she said. “I couldn’t ask for a better experience.”

Besides enjoying her work with fellow students, Briggs appreciates faculty members who made time to work with her. Briggs earned a GED after dropping out of high school at the age of 15, so a combination of hard work and seeking academic help when she needed it were keys to her success. She always found her faculty members accessible.

“(It) didn’t matter what was going on, they (her professors) were always available,” she said. “That means a lot, especially for a nontraditional (student) because I didn’t have a very strong educational background going into Jackson State, so there were a lot of things I struggled with. But they literally got me through it.”

Briggs’ experiences included work as an intern with Dr. Michael Gibson at the UT Martin Coon Creek Science Center in McNairy County. Gibson is professor of geology and director of the center, a major fossil site acquired by the university. “Shay is a non-traditional student with an incredible work ethic,” he said. “Her past experiences and maturity made her an invaluable role model for our geoscience majors.”

Briggs begins the earth sciences graduate program this fall at the University of Memphis. A doctorate is a long-term dream, but she has a plan until then. “I want to work with communities to help them be more resilient when natural disasters and things like earthquakes, tornadoes – things like that happen,” she said. “I want to be able to work with underserved communities, kind of get them back up where they need to be.”

Gibson described Briggs as an extrovert who sees the best in everyone she meets. “Such positive attributes clearly give her strength and motivation,” he said. “Part of her strength comes from helping others and being part of something bigger than herself.”

Briggs joined fellow graduates earlier in the evening when Dr. Philip Acree Cavalier, provost and UT Martin vice chancellor for academic affairs, presided over the ceremony and conferred degrees. He also provided the commencement address and offered practical advice for beginning life after college, advising the class first to welcome unexpected opportunities.

“Don’t stick to a rigid narrative of how your life should go,” he said. “Over the next 60 years, opportunities will open up for you that you can’t imagine today. Embrace them – don’t ignore or avoid them simply because they don’t fit with the plan you created for your life in 2021.”

“Over the next 60 years, opportunities will open up for you that you can’t imagine today. Embrace them – don’t ignore or avoid them simply because they don’t fit with the plan you created for your life in 2021.”

He next advised each class member to continually refine the kind of person he or she wishes to be both in public and in private. Cavalier urged each person to especially consider what he or she needs in order to be happy and grow individually. “Give yourself the license to reinvent yourself throughout your life,” he said. Success individually and professionally often involves taking risks and learning from failure, and he encouraged each person to test his or her limits by “stepping outside your comfort zone.”

“I’m not suggesting that each of you go out and push yourself to the point of catastrophic failure,” he said. “I’m talking about considering a job several hours away from home or switching careers to pursue an unexpected opportunity.

“The job may not work out. You may discover that you don’t want to live that far away from your family. But you learn a lot about yourself and may even discover your true calling.” He closed by asking each graduate to “never stop asking questions about yourself and about the world around you.”

“Throughout your life, I hope that you will choose to keep asking questions and be a self-reflective thinker as you gain new insights from your experiences and observations,” Cavalier said. “Sometimes how you see a problem one day is very different from how you see it a month later because you take the time to think deeply and carefully about the problem. Keep honing that skill as a lifelong learner.”

Each ceremony featured several speakers who appeared virtually on Skyhawk Arena’s digital board. The Rev. Amanda Crice, campus minister, UT Martin Wesley Foundation, offered the invocation; UT President Randy Boyd and UT Martin Chancellor Keith Carver provided greetings and personal congratulations; and Student Government Association immediate-past President Hunter McCloud and UT Martin Alumni Council President Victor Andrews addressed the graduating class. Each ceremony closed with a performance of the Alma Mater by the UTM Virtual Choir, recorded and edited by 2010 UT Martin graduate Joseph Sam.

The four ceremonies included graduates from 65 Tennessee counties, 24 states and seven countries outside of the U.S.

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Friday – May 7 – 6 p.m.


Saturday – May 8 – 10 a.m.


Saturday – May 8 – 2 p.m.


Saturday – May 8 – 6 p.m.


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