December 9, 2023
On Saturday, December 9, East Texas Baptist University celebrated the achievements of 158 graduates at its commencement ceremony in the Baker Chapel of the Rogers Spiritual Life Center. Guided by the University's President, Dr. J. Blair Blackburn, the ceremony marked the conferral of degrees to 108 undergraduate and 50 graduate students. The event was infused with Scripture readings, songs of praise and worship, heartfelt prayers, and blessings bestowed upon the graduates.
"The gospel and education are transformative forces," Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Thomas Sanders said. "As I watched graduates walk across the stage, I am reminded of lives that were changed over the past four years and the lives that will be changed all over the world because of the last four years."
Chief United States District Judge James Rodney Gilstrap was presented with an Honorary Doctorate. From 1989 until 2002, Judge Gilstrap served as County Judge of Harrison County, Texas. Judge Gilstrap was in private practice in Marshall, Texas, with the firms of Abney, Baldwin, and Searcy and later Smith and Gilstrap, where his practice covered a wide range of issues. On May 19, 2011, Judge Gilstrap was nominated by President Barack Obama to a seat on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas. The American Bar Association rated Chief Judge Gilstrap Unanimously Qualified for the nomination. Hearings on Chief Judge Gilstrap's nomination were held before the U. S. Senate Judiciary Committee on July 27, 2011, and his nomination was reported by Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to the full Senate on September 15, 2011. Judge Gilstrap was confirmed on a voice vote of the Senate on December 5, 2011, and he received his commission the next day. He was appointed chief judge of the court in 2018, and he still serves today. Judge Gilstrap's duty station is in Marshall, and he is responsible for cases in both the Marshall and Texarkana Divisions of the Eastern District.
"It is indeed an honor for us to bestow this honorary doctor of laws upon Chief Judge Rodney Gilstrap," Dr. Blackburn said. "Dr. Gilstrap is a man of faith, character, and integrity. He is respected for his judicial leadership and commitment to the virtue of justice. People across this country and around the world respect what Chief Judge Gilstrap does each and every day through his leadership on the bench."
The Honorable Chief Judge Rodney Gilstrap delivered the keynote address and charged the graduates to meet challenges and opportunities head-on.
"So, graduates, while you're living in the arena of life, empowered and very well equipped with your degree from East Texas Baptist University, think about what you want to try to do, what you're going to try to achieve," Gilstrap said. "What you are is God's gift to you. What you make of yourself is your gift to God."
Each semester, ETBU President Blackburn presents an award to a graduate who represents a Christian leader, scholar, and servant within the campus and the local community. Mollie Marie Dittmar, graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Education, received the President's Award for the Fall 2023 graduating class. Mollie is from Buffalo, Texas, and maintained a 3.97 GPA with her degree in Secondary Mathematics Education. Her faithful service and leadership have distinguished her in the classroom, on the basketball court, on the mission field, and in ministry. During Mollie's time at ETBU, she has served as a member of the Women's Basketball team, where she was named the 2023 American Southwest Conference Community Service Athlete of the Year, was on the leadership team for Fellowship of Christian Athletes and a Tiger Camp Leader each fall. Mollie served with her ETBU basketball teammates on a mission trip to Ireland. She has volunteered at Mission Marshall, at her church, Mobberly Baptist Church, on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings, and as a tutor at Marshall Junior High. In the spring of 2023, Mollie was honored as the 76th Annual Senior Girl Call-Out. Selected by a faculty and staff vote, the senior student "called out" each year is distinguished for her exemplary Christian character, social consciousness, personal poise, academic achievement, and spiritual vision.
"Mollie is joyful and always has a great attitude and spirit in how she approaches her life, her sport, and her education," Associate Professor of Mathematics Dr. Robin Rudd said. "Mollie is a Christian example in the classroom and on the basketball court. She leads by example in her commitment to God, her studies, family, and friends. The love of God shows in how and what she does."
ETBU offers 17 graduate and over 45 undergraduate degree programs to develop Christian servant leaders, and celebrated the University's highest enrollment during the Fall 2023 semester. While East Texas Baptist continues to see increased enrollment, its mission of providing a transformational, Christ-centered education and commitment to helping students succeed remains constant.
"It is our prayer that our graduates use their intellectual and spiritual giftings to transform the world for the glory of God in their vocational callings," Dr. Blackburn said. "The Kingdom-building mandate, given by God to the founders of this University, calls and inspires the ETBU Family of scholars and servants to educate, equip, and empower generations of faithful Christ followers. ETBU is focused on that call and committed to producing Christian graduates like these here today who shine the bright light of Jesus in their hearts and through their service."