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Furman celebrates start of 2019-20 academic year with opening Convocation

LaDavia Drummond Just ’02 stands behind a podium speaking.
LaDavia Drummond Just ’02 speaks during opening Convocation Monday in McAlister Auditorium.

Once a homeless high school dropout, LaDavia Drummond Just ’02 today possesses four college degrees and is a Fulbright Scholar teaching pharmacology to second-year medical students at Uganda Christian University School in Kampala, Uganda. That is thanks in no small part to an experience at Furman that gave her a feeling of belonging and instilled a sense of empowerment she still carries, Just told the incoming Class of 2023 during her opening Convocation address Monday in McAlister Auditorium.

“I was embraced and taken in as family here at Furman,” Just said. “I know it will be the same for each of you.”

Just and her sister were raised by a single mother who suffered from chronic illness and an unrelated physical disability, and the pressure of being a caregiver forced Just to leave Greenville High. Their mother died when Just was a junior in high school, leaving the children homeless, and Just never would have even applied to Furman had her high school physics teacher, Tommy Edwards, not told her he believed she was smart enough to go.

But that encouragement followed by the support she received at Furman – including being allowed to stay on campus when it was closed for holidays because she had nowhere else to go – led to Just earning a Bachelor of Science in chemistry and embarking on a career as a clinical pharmacist.

“I arrived on campus very much an orphan in spirit,” she said. “I graduated from here feeling empowered, and that empowerment has not fizzled out … I went from dropping out of high school to serving in Uganda as a Fulbright Scholar. This beautiful campus is where much, much of that transformation took place.”

Furman President Elizabeth Davis emphasized Furman’s commitment to truth and inclusiveness during her remarks at the university’s celebration of the 2019-20 academic year.

“In that spirit, we’ve been taking a hard look these past two years at the university’s past connections to slavery as part of the Seeking Abraham Project,” she said. “We value truth and inclusiveness. As such, the telling of the Furman story needed to be corrected to more fully acknowledge how our wonderful institution came to be. It’s our hope that we can learn from our past and bridge that with our commitment to growing and enhancing diversity in all its forms and creating a more inclusive community where each of us are supported as we continue to learn and grow.”

Beth Pontari speaks behind a podium
Beth Pontari, associate provost for engaged learning and professor of psychology, delivers an address at Monday’s opening Convocation.

Beth Pontari, associate provost for engaged learning and professor of psychology, gave the first address. She emphasized engaged learning’s place as a foundation of The Furman Advantage and shared three characteristics essential to being an engaged learner with the first-year students. They are:

  • Be open and humble. “We must be OK with the not knowing, OK with having our views challenged, OK with being wrong, and OK with embracing people, experiences and ideas that are different from what we have experienced in our lives so far,” Pontari said.
  • Engagement requires agency. “Take responsibility for your learning and your development at Furman,” she said. “As much as you will be supported by the dedicated faculty and staff at Furman, in the end what you get out of your time at Furman is up to you.”
  • Resilience. “When we make ourselves vulnerable we leave ourselves open to setbacks, the idea that things don’t always go as planned. What matters is how respond to those setbacks and disappointments,” Pontari said.

Vice President for Academic Affairs, Provost and John D. Hollingsworth, Jr., Professor of Economics Ken Peterson introduced recipients of Furman’s Meritorious Diversity and Inclusion Awards, which are given to a current Furman faculty member, staff member and student who have demonstrated an emerging or sustained commitment to advance Furman’s value of diversity, inclusion and multiculturalism on campus.

Claire Whitlinger, assistant professor of sociology, received the Faculty Meritorious Award for Diversity & Inclusion, while Emilee O’Brien ’17, a Post-Baccalaureate Fellow for Social Justice and Community-Engaged Learning through the Center for Inclusive Communities, was given the Staff Meritorious Award for Diversity & Inclusion. Erik Ortiz ’20 is the Rosa Mary Bodkin Award winner.

More information on Whitlinger, O’Brien and Ortiz can be found by clicking here.

Peterson also recognized the five members of the senior class who have been named Furman Fellows for the current academic year. They are Davis Cousar, Maddie De Pree, Kenia Flores, Chrissy Hicks and Trent Stubbs.

The Furman Fellowships, given annually to students who have shown unique leadership skills and an ability to make a difference in the world and in the lives of others, are made possible through the generosity of Furman trustee emeritus Bob Buckman and his wife, Joyce Mollerup. Biographical information on each of the Fellows is below:

Davis Cousar, an economics major from Anderson, South Carolina, has served high-profile internships with the Innocence Project in Atlanta and with the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office of Environment and Natural Resources in Washington. He is also active in the Student Government Association and the Shucker Leadership Institute.

Maddie De Pree, an English major from Decatur, Georgia, was a Furman Metropolitan Fellow, is the chief editor of the ECHO and has established PHEMME Zine, a print and online magazine that promotes the work of marginalized authors, artists and photographers.

Kenia Flores, a politics and international affairs major from Mint Hill, North Carolina, has completed two internships in Washington for U.S. Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina and is a member of both the Senior Order and the Riley Institute Advance Team.

Chrissy Hicks, a music major from Bluffton, South Carolina, holds a leadership role in the Furman Symphony Orchestra and serves as the cellist of both the Hartness and the Gladden String Quartets, the music department’s flagship string ensembles.

Trent Stubbs, a chemistry major from Roswell, Georgia, has filed two provisional patents with Henry Keith and Ellen Hard Townes Associate Professor of Chemistry Greg Springsteen based on discoveries made during research the two did together. He also manages a tutoring program for chemistry students at Furman and mentors middle school students in Greenville County.

The five Furman Fellows are shown.
The five Furman Fellows of 2019-20 stand on stage during opening Convocation Monday. From left, they are Davis Cousar, Maddie De Pree, Kenia Flores, Chrissy Hicks and Trent Stubbs.
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