Armstrong Atlantic State University Savannah Georgia.

Opening Convocation Address 2009

I am delighted to be with you and to welcome you today.

I am a newbie, so I would like to welcome all of you who join me in the Class of 2009. I look forward to our association during the coming years.

For those of you who have been here for a while, I also want to welcome you to fall semester. As we all know, the beginning of the new academic year is a time when we are excited about the entering class of freshmen and are reminded, once again, of the significant role each of us plays as mentors and role models for the students we serve.

I am happy to report many good experiences since my official arrival on July 1. During that time, I have had the opportunity to meet a number of good people and to see how a focus on students and student learning guides so much of the activity here.

So, if you will bear with me, I would like to share with you some of my first impressions:

Actually, my impressions of Armstrong began long before I officially arrived. As a board member of the Ossabaw Island Foundation (TOIF), I, as well as the other Board members, were delighted two years ago when the OssaBEST collaborative grant was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). This multidisciplinary collaboration, spearheaded by Armstrong, links the University's Colleges of Education and College of Science and Technology with TOIF and the Chatham County schools.

You can see here the beauty of this island, located twenty miles south of Savannah, a pristine place of pine, oak and marsh spanning 26,000 acres and teeming with turkeys, herons, egrets and wild boar.

Ossabaw is Georgia's third largest barrier island and home to nonagenarian Eleanor Torrey West, whose family owned the island until it was sold to the state to be designated as Georgia's first heritage preserve in 1978. TOIF, in collaboration with Georgia's Department of Natural Resources, manages the island as a living museum of Georgia cultural history and focuses on providing a site for educational, scientific and cultural programs.

The shots you see here are of 40 students and 30 teachers from Chatham County schools exploring the island as part of the OssaBest initiative.

The children spent two nights and three days on the island, exploring the island on foot, following dirt paths under live oak canopies and peering into 19th century, sun-bleached slave quarters still standing today as a testament to the island's rich history.

A total of 90 teachers and 120 students in grades seven through 10 will be involved over the three-year duration of the project ending in 2010.

Upon my arrival, I was immediately impressed by the campus. One only has to step on campus to realize the beauty of this place. The structures provide a very nice framework that actually lends to the overall feeling of a learning community. But I must say, Phillip Schretter and his team have really made this environment one that, on a daily basis, is a source of delight and renewal. Even in the heat of our Savannah summer, I have been refreshed by just taking a few moments to walk outdoors to look at the plantings. This is a work of art, and one that is continuously renewed by nature and tended to by some very talented people.

Of course, the entity we know as AASU is only possible because students choose to come, so I want to first recognize a couple of students I met very early:

The first AASU student I met was Somi Benson Jaja—even before I came to campus. Somi served as student representative on the Presidential Search Committee. Many of you know of Somi's excellence as a musician—a senior music major, he plays both the trombone and piano.

Clearly, his artistic and academic accomplishments are significant. Also remarkable is his service to Armstrong. You already know that he served as president of the Student Government Association (SGA) last year. Perhaps you don't know of the key role that he also played in orienting our incoming freshmen. Now, I ask you, who could not feel welcomed and reassured by this charming face. As we all know, the warm exterior is matched by a spirit of service that reflects the spirit of so many of you whom I have already met.

Stephanie Morgan '10
I first met Stephanie on July 8 when I was asked to present to her a scholarship that was awarded by the GED Testing Service in partnership with the American Nurses Credentialing Center. Stephanie's is a story that immediately captured me, and I think it will inspire you as well.

Stephanie Morgan grew up in the Savannah area and cruised through middle and high school as an honor student earning mostly A's. In her junior year at South Effingham High School, however, an unplanned pregnancy changed her life's course. She dropped out of school and began working a series of odd jobs, including a clerk position checking in patients at Savannah's Candler Hospital.

It was while working at Candler that she understood that she needed to get back to school. She refocused her life and in 2004 earned her GED diploma.The following year she enrolled in technical school and that path lead her to enrolling at AASU in 2007.

As she said when awarded the tuition scholarship, "Earning my GED diploma was a life changing experience. I wanted to show to myself and others that even though I was a high school dropout I could still be successful in life."

Stephanie plans to earn her B.S. in nursing from AASU in May 2010. Her son Nathan, who will be seven years old, will surely be nearby to applaud his mom's tenacity. Following that Stephanie plans to pursue a nurse practitioner graduate program and work in pediatrics.

The night Stephanie received her scholarship, she especially acknowledged her nursing faculty—especially those who encouraged her to apply for her scholarship.

And she emphasized one important thing: "Do not ever underestimate what you can do."

Next, I met a number of students, faculty and staff members—all of them working together to bring this year's freshmen on board at a Navigate session.

What you see here is a true collaboration among all groups represented on campus. They are enthusiastic, informative, and present the best face of a vibrant learning community to our incoming students.

At the Navigate session, I met one of our great chemistry faculty, Delana Nivens. Delana told me about the STEP (Science Talent Expansion Program) initiative occurring on campus this summer, and she invited me to visit. So, I made plans, and on July 15, I met several of the 17 students participating in the NSF STEP Grant through the College of Science and Technology.

These students, in collaboration with 22 hard-working science and math faculty were conducting research in the labs in our Science Center.

As Delana Nivens says, "This is part of a concerted effort on the part of AASU to increase the level of undergraduate research on this campus.

These pictures show students explaining to me (a non-scientist!) their research. They are very bright, and so they were very patient as they walked me through what they were doing. First-rate work! And, you will have an opportunity to hear it yourself when these students do presentations about their research findings later in the semester.

You know, I love collaborative stuff, so it was a real treat to have another chemistry faculty member, Donna Mullenax invite me to learn about a collaborative program that involves both our College of Education faculty and our College of Science and Technology faculty.

This is the Academy for Future Teachers that was held as part of the USG University System of Georgia) STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) initiative. So, back I went to the science labs last week to see a collaborative effort that exists among our colleges of Education and Science and Technology, and local schools to bring to Armstrong's campus high school students who want to be teachers.

What we found is pictured here: excellent students from Chatham, Effingham, and Liberty counties—all very bright and all planning to teach math and science to students themselves one day. This opportunity was made possible by teachers coming together in their final weeks before summer is officially over to work together. As in our prior example, these individuals are part of the ongoing effort to create a vibrant learning environment on our campus.

In this shot, you may be wondering why I needed the "protection" of Joe Penny, a member of our campus security team. I saw Joe when walking over to the Science Center, and we began talking about his pursuit of a degree in Middle Grades Teaching. I asked him to come along with me to meet the students, and he agreed.

So much of what we have here today is due to the efforts of those present among us, but is also part of the legacy of those faculty, students and supportive alums who came before us. So at this time, I would like to highlight at least a few:

J. Cliff McCurry, '68—Vice chairman, Seacrest Partners, Inc.
Cliff is a past recipient of the 2005 AASU Outstanding Alumnus Service Award, past president of the AASU Foundation Board of Trustees and a current member of the AASU Educational Properties Foundation, Inc. Board of Directors. During his days at AASU,

Cliff remembers attending AASU basketball games at the Savannah Civic Center, during what he likes to refer as the "heyday" of AASU basketball. He also holds fond memories of the new AASU campus on the Southside, which opened in 1965, and driving past cow pastures before reaching the campusway south of downtown Savannah.

Mayor Otis Johnson
Yes, Mayor Johnson is a alum, and it may interest you to know that he was the first African American to attend Armstrong. Over the years, he has been a supporter of our institution, and you see him here, proudly wearing his Armstrong pin!

Dr. Renee Connolly, a 1993 graduate of AASU
When Renee was here, she was an orientation leader. Currently, Renee is director of accreditation at the University of South Carolina. Renee will return to campus soon because she is currently vice president on the AASU Alumni Board.

Tamara Fulton, a 2004 graduate
Tamara is a wellness coordinator for Chatham County Human Resources Department. She is also closely linked to AASU as she serves as the alumni board's secretary and treasurer.

Don Waters, graduate and chair of Educational Property Foundation Board. Over the years, Don has provided leadership, friendship and support to AASU. He has also provided many important linkages to the community.

If you have detected some themes in the first impressions that I have noted, you would be right. First, it is people that are important. Whether we think of students, faculty, staff or alumni—each group plays a vital and important role in the ongoing life of our campus.

Collaborations are also key. Collaborations that can link the maximum number of people and entities are ideal. Consider the first collaboration, OssaBEST:
It links students (at both university and secondary school level), faculty, a private foundation, and a federal agency—all in a collaboration that helps to preserve our environment, provide research opportunities for faculty, and best of all helps our students to learn.

You can, I am sure detect the importance of people working together in many of the other examples I noted. People who are working together are able to create the vibrant learning environment that is Armstrong. This is a place where students connect to committed faculty and staff who partner with them in the learning process.

I am grateful that you have allowed me to join you. You have entrusted me to serve as a steward of this university during the time that we are together. My role is to honor the people, culture, and resources that comprise Armstrong, and to work to develop new opportunities that will enhance the university.

This coming year will not be without challenges—especially as our state and nation continue to grapple with shortfalls in budget, and we will be talking more specifically in the days ahead about what that will mean for the citizens of Armstrong Atlantic State University. But I would like to remind us all that the institution has gone through challenging times before, and I assure you we will survive and prosper in the years ahead.

Why am I so certain of this? Well—first look at our history: Many of you know that AASU will celebrate its 75th anniversary in May 2010. That means that Armstrong's first days occurred in 1935, a time when the nation and the world were just beginning to come back from the Great Depression. But the founders of our university had a dream and they took a chance that it would be successful. Nearly 75 years later, I daresay the reality—the scope of this institution and its history of service to our region and our students—wildly exceeds any ideas they may have had in those dark days of 1935.

Because of their legacy and your hard work, the community counts on AASU for teachers, artists, nurses, scientists, writers and we will not disappoint this community just because the going is a bit tough.

We are a place that commits itself everyday to building a healthy, educated community and a healthy economy through multiple partnerships—with students, community, and business. Our faculty, staff, students and alums are committed to continuing the great legacy of the past.

So, I invite you to join me as we travel the road ahead. It is filled with opportunity, and I look forward to exploring the pathways of our future together.

Thank you.