December 10, 2022
East Texas Baptist University presented 162 graduates with degrees during its commencement ceremony on Saturday, December 10, in Baker Chapel of the Rogers Spiritual Life Center. ETBU President J. Blair Blackburn presided over the ceremony as 116 students received undergraduate degrees and 46 received graduate degrees.
“I’m a first-generation American in my family, so being able to graduate and get my degree is an incredibly rewarding experience,” ETBU child development graduate Melody Sitgreaves said. “The faculty and staff were the most transformative part of my experience at ETBU. I found my calling here, which is teaching. ETBU opened the door to something I never really thought I would pursue. This University prepared me in many ways, and I already have a job to step into upon graduation.”
The December 2022 graduating class marked the second-largest fall class in University history. Contributing to the size of the graduating class is the significant growth and success of ETBU’s Teague School of Nursing.
“This commencement is very meaningful to me because this is the first time we have graduated a Fall nursing cohort,” ETBU Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Thomas Sanders said. “One of my career goals when I came ten years ago was to double the size of the program. Thanks to the leadership and work of our dean and faculty, we are seeing that accomplished today.”
Dr. Dawn Buckingham, Texas State Senator and recently-elected Texas Land Commissioner, charged the graduating class with a keynote address. Dr. Buckingham’s family were among the first settlers in Texas seven generations ago. True to her Texas roots, her commitment to service began early as a volunteer firefighter. She is also an avid hunter, outdoorswoman, and steward of the land. She made history in 2016 as the first woman elected to the Texas State Senate from Travis County, as well as the first woman ever elected to represent Senate District 24. Dr. Buckingham has made Texas history again as this state’s first female Land Commissioner—one of the most important executive offices in state government.
“I am blessed today to give you a message and some inspiration from someone who struggled their whole life for everything I accomplished,” Dr. Buckingham said. “I just want you to know that you can consider every obstacle to be an opportunity. Every ounce of character that you are building can be used for the opportunities that you will charge through and the challenges you will face.”
During the ceremony, Dr. Blackburn presented Harold (Hal) Lee Cornish, an avid supporter of East Texas Baptist and former ETBU Board of Trustees member, with an Honorary Doctorate. Hal Cornish has been a dedicated servant and faithful supporter of ETBU for over 30 years. East Texas Baptist University has tremendously benefitted from the generous philanthropic commitments of Hal and his wife, Joyce. The Cornish’s gifting provided funding for a diversity of causes, including student emergency funds, student scholarships, Ornelas Student Center, Marshall Grand/School of Nursing, Great Commission Center, and ETBU Tiger Athletics. Cornish Soccer Field is named in honor of the generosity that the Cornish’s bestowed upon ETBU. Prior to service on the ETBU Board of Trustees, Mr. Cornish served as President of the ETBU Board of Associates for three years. Mr. Cornish served on the ETBU Board of Trustees for two nine-year terms from 2000-2009 and 2011-2020. During his governance service, Mr. Cornish twice served as the Chairman of the Board of Trustees for ETBU.
“I became fast friends with Dr. Cornish, and I saw in his heart a passion for what God was doing at East Texas Baptist,” Dr. Blackburn shared. “Hal and Joyce Cornish have been rocks and solid supporters of our Institution, and their service and leadership have meant so much to us. So, thank you, Joyce and Dr. Cornish, for what you have done to serve our ETBU campus community.”
At each commencement, the President’s Award is given to the graduating ETBU student who is the best representation of a Christian leader, scholar, and servant. Graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Education, Leah Heather Akridge is the recipient of the 2022 President’s Award. She has consistently demonstrated ETBU's core commitments during her time on the Hill. Though very involved in campus life as a Titus leader, Thrive Mentor, Tiger Camp leader, 3-year softball scholar-athlete, and a leader in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Leah also spent many hours volunteering at serve days. Leah has also been an active member of Immanuel Baptist Church College Ministry, where she leads and participates in Bible study. In the Fall of 2021, Leah received the Bob and Gayle Riley Servant Leader award. She has done all of this while maintaining a strong commitment to academics, and was recognized on the President’s List every semester while at ETBU.
“Leah Akridge embodies the values of ETBU in every way,” an ETBU community member shared. “Her grace and humility in every situation are paralleled only by her commitment to excellence and service. She applies wisdom in her decision-making and embraces all who she encounters in a spirit of love and hope. She radiates these things. When given the opportunity, Leah passionately chooses to serve students who are at risk of dropping out of school over students who have successful track records and would be much easier to serve.”
The worship ceremony featured Scripture readings, praise and worship through song, prayers, and blessings over the graduates, including words from Dr. Blackburn reminding those in attendance of the University’s Christ-centered mission.
“East Texas Baptist University has a calling to educate, equip, and empower Christian servant leaders like these graduates who are here before us today,” Dr. Blackburn said. “Graduates who will go out and serve families, neighborhoods, churches, and community organizations through their careers and their callings. ETBU is focused on that call and committed to producing graduates who speak the Truths of God, who live out the Truths of God, who profess the hope of Christ, and who demonstrate the love of Jesus in all walks of life. Graduates, regardless of your discipline, regardless of your career direction, you have been called to live out the mission of ETBU: to be a Christian servant leader, a disciple maker, a hope encourager, to be a truth purveyor, to be a bearer of light, and a love-giver. So from this Hill, we are sending you out emboldened to influence and impact the world for Jesus Christ.”