By: Andrew J. Yawn, Montgomery Advertiser
The first person to receive a degree at Alabama State University’s commencement ceremony Saturday was not a student.
It was entertainer and university partner Steve Harvey.
Harvey was on hand as the commencement speaker Saturday at the Acadome, but before his speech, ASU President Dr. Gwendolyn Boyd presented Harvey with an honorary doctorate.
“You epitomize excellence, courage, wisdom, and you are to be commended and emulated. I’m delighted to make you an official member of Hornet Nation,” Boyd said before placing the stole over Harvey’s head.
Harvey never graduated from college and readily admits to “flunking out” of Kent State University after two years as an advertising major in the ’70s.
About 40 years later, Harvey gratefully accepted the honorary doctorate before taking the podium to deliver the commencement address.
“I’m Dr. Harvey now. Deal with it,” Harvey said as the audience laughed and applauded in response. “I’ve got no formal education. But look at me, though.”
Over the next 40 minutes, Harvey told stories from his life while motivating the 2016 spring graduates to be more than successful.
He said he wants them to be great.
“I want to challenge you to something today. You have, so far to this point, you are successful, but I want you to go a little past successful. I want somebody to be great,” Harvey said. “Success is for yourself. Great people change other people’s lives. … Take this degree and go change some lives with it.”
The Acadome was filled with nonstop laughter and applause as Harvey encouraged the graduates to pursue their wildest dreams with faith and imagination. He even got emotional as he described the adversities he has faced: flunking out of school, losing everything he owned twice, and showering at gas stations while living out of his car in his 20s.
“I’ve lost it all twice and had to start over. I had to struggle through two marriages before finding this one. … I didn’t have nothing,” Harvey said, pausing as tears came to his eyes. “In every single moment of adversity in your life, two things are going to happen: There’s going to be a lesson and there’s going to be a blessing. If you let the adversity crumble you, you will lay there and wallow in the failure, but life is 10 percent what happened and 90 percent what you’re going to do about it.”
After Harvey’s speech, it was the students’ turn to accept diplomas as 500 degrees — 413 undergraduate and 87 graduate — were awarded.
Angel Palmer, a Montgomery native majoring in elementary education and minoring in music, said Harvey’s message was exactly what she and her fellow graduates needed.
“I’m very excited that Steve Harvey was able to come and talk to us,” Palmer said. “It’s something we all needed to hear. We just have to keep trying, keep going to be great and successful in life. He had a very powerful message.”
Another elementary education major, 28-year-old Ashley Hunter, had a longer journey to graduation.
Hunter initially began at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. After her father was diagnosed with dementia, Hunter moved home to Auburn to take care of him and transferred to Southern Union Community College. She eventually received a scholarship offer from ASU, however, and after two transfers and months of commuting from Auburn to Montgomery for class, Hunter finally got her degree.
Her father even made it to the ceremony.
“My family flew in from California, Georgia and Tennessee. My dad has dementia but was able to make it here. I’m excited, I’m living in the moment and I’m happy,” Hunter said.
The 1966 graduating class was also honored as part of ASU’s Golden Anniversary tradition.
A moment of silence was held at the beginning of the ceremony for fallen ASU students and faculty members, including students Rasul Dowdell and Demetrius Bell, who died this year.