FVSU graduates shine at 73rd annual Spring commencement

May 3, 2014 - Fort Valley State University Dr. Robert J. Jones is an alum who is dreaming and doing. Four decades ago, Jones started his journey on the FVSU campus. The scholar studied hard, eventually earning his bachelor's degree in agronomy in 1973.

Fast forward to 2014, Jones is now the new president of one of the largest public universities in the country, State University of New York-Albany.

On Saturday, May 3, Jones returned to his alma mater to share advice and his life's journey with graduates during FVSU's 73rd annual Spring commencement. Held in the Health and Physical Education Complex, the event was the crowning achievement for 316 students who participated in the morning ceremony, including 48 with graduate degrees.

"Fort Valley State prepared me for my life journey, and I never imagined where I would end up," said Jones, who is a former member of the Grammy-award-winning gospel group, The Sounds of Blackness.

The alum made a special trip to serve as the keynote speaker for FVSU's commencement, even though SUNY-Albany's graduation took place on the same day. "I am privileged and deeply gratified for the education that I received at FVSU."

Before the start of commencement, the mood inside the HPE Complex was celebratory. Parents screamed the names of their favorite graduates as well-wishers held up colorful signs that congratulated FVSU students. While Pomp and Circumstances March No. 1 played, the graduates wore big smiles as they walked into the complex. Plant science/biotechnology senior Ashley Norris was among the crowd. 

Message from the Valedictorian Rena Ingram

Following the president’s address, this year’s valedictorian, Rena Ingram, took center stage to deliver her best advice to FVSU students.

“I know that the journey hasn’t been an easy one, but here we are today," Ingram said. She told students they needed to differentiate between people who are only in your lives for a season and others who will support you for the long haul. She told students that not everyone would be happy about their success.

The star student who studied chemistry (with a concentration in forensics) is the first Georgia student to win the University of Georgia's Regents' Academic Recognition Award twice in system history.

The 21-year old Augusta, Ga. native maintained a 4.0 GPA. In 2013, she was awarded a $25,000 scholarship and named a UNCF-Merck Fellow. She is a member of the American Chemical Society, and has been an ACS scholar for the past two years. Ingram also served as the 2012-2013 chief justice for FVSU’s Student Government Association and belongs to several honor societies, including Beta Kappa Chi and Pi Gamma Mu. Additionally, Ingram is the past president of the Alpha Lambda Delta National Honor Society, and a member of the Peach State Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participants.

The Keynote Address

After Ingram’s address ended, Dr. Robert J. Jones took the podium.

"May 3, 2014 is your day, and a new beginning for you," Jones said. "Enjoy the fruits of your labor today. Reflect on where you've been, we're you're going and where you'll be. As you look back years from now, you'll barely recognize the person who graduated from college. You will have a new prospective."

The 1973 alumnus told students that it is important for them to give back to FVSU, and play a part in the lives of others. He also advised them to take pride in their accomplishments, and move on to the next chapter, vowing to make a positive impact on the lives of others.

Following Jones’ commencement speech, President Griffith awarded Jones with a plaque in honor to commemorate the day.

The ceremony wrapped up with the commissioning of four graduating ROTC students.

Standout Students

Ashley Norris

In an interview, one week before commencement, Norris, who graduated cum laude on May 3, said graduation would be bittersweet for her, because she made many fond memories on campus.

The student arrived on FVSU’s campus before she officially began her freshman year, participating in FVSU’s Summer Research Apprenticeship Program. In the program, Norris was paired with mentors who taught her the skills she needed to succeed as a scientist and researcher.

Norris used her knowledge to excel academically. As a student, the future researcher earned a 3.5 GPA. In 2012, Delaware State University accepted the aspiring researcher for an internship in its plant science department. She also conducted research within the university’s plant biotechnology department.

As an undergraduate, Norris traveled internationally to compete at scientific conferences, including the Ana G. Mendez University System Symposium in San Juan, Puerto Rico and the Emerging Researchers National Conference in Washington, D.C., which she was awarded first place.

She recently returned from a trip to Dubai (City in United Arab Emirates), where she participated in the fourth annual International Conference on Advances in Biotechnology.

Outside of the classroom, Norris gives back to her local community, volunteering at her church, where she serves a Sunday school teacher.

Dr. Ivelaw Lloyd Griffith welcomed parents to the university’s 73rd annual Spring Commencement ceremony. He said that the event was a culmination of dreaming and doing for students.

FVSU’s Benjamin Pickard, a senior plant science/biotechnology student, was one of the graduates listening to Griffith’s charge to students and parents.


Benjamin Pickard

Pickard is an aspiring physician who earned his bachelor’s degree in plant science and biotechnology. Throughout his matriculation on campus, the Wildcat maintained a 3.51 GPA.

“I have an unquenchable thirst for learning and studying medicine,” says the Pickard. As a freshman in 2011, the aspiring physician interned at the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the United States Drug Administration in the Student Career Experience Program, a source for external recruitment for entry-level hires in the U.S. Forest Service. In 2012, Pickard went to Brunswick, Ga. to complete the second year of his NRSC-USDA internship.

During the summer of 2013, Pickard completed an internship at the University of Connecticut Health Care Opportunities Program (HCOP). While there, he worked in the orthopedic surgery department, conducting research on Lactoferrin fibers, or proteins found in milk, saliva, tears and nasal secretions.

Pickard also served as the president for the campus’ Minority Association for Pre-Medical Students (M.A.P.S.), vice president for Beta Kappa Chi Honor Society for science students, and as a member of FVSU’s Student Government Association and the Black Men with Initiative organization.


Derrick Smith

Derrick Smith, a plant science/biotechnology student was one of the 316 students standing in line, eagerly waiting to hear the announcer call his name. Smith, a 35-year-old nontraditional student began pursuing his degree in his thirties. He was first introduced to genetics during the Upward Bound Program at Mercer University, then completed his associate’s degree in biotechnology at Central Georgia Technical College in 2008. Later, he transferred to FVSU to earn his bachelor’s degree.

 “It feels amazing [to graduate], it’s been a long time coming,” Smith said. He graduated cum laude with a 3.2 GPA. “It feels surreal right now. I can’t believe it.” 

In 2013, Smith interned at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur, Missouri, where he performed biological and soil assays to determine the genetic adaption of the genus Seteria viridis, to different environments. It is a widely distributed plant model that scientists use to determine the genetic adaptations of the plant.

His research on the plant helped him to win the best poster presentation at the Ana G. Mendez University System conference in San Jan, Puerto Rico. He also received the National Role Model award from the Minority Access conference in Washington, D.C.

Although Smith completed his undergraduate studies, this is not the end of his journey.

“I am going to further my education in graduate studies in FVSU’s biotechnology program,” Smith said. “My goal is to earn my master’s degree, then earn my doctorate.”

Smith’s advice to students: “If you don’t know what you want to do with your life, if you don’t have a job, continue furthering your education. Just don’t stop with your undergraduate degree. If you see a challenge, take the challenge and continue pressing forward. Don’t be scared.”

Special Honors

Presidential Medal of Excellence Winners

Dr. Anna Holloway, retiring dean of the College of Graduate Studies and Extended Education (45 years of service)


Dr. Fred van Hartesveldt, retiring chair of the Department of History, Geography, Political Science and Criminal Justice (34 years of service)


U.S. Commissions

Roshawnda A. H. Brown – Quartermaster

Ashton Daniel Griffith – Engineer

Tristian William Smith – Chemical


View commencement pictures on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/fvsu1895.



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