Tag Archives: non-traditional students

44-year-old blind TSU student defies the odds, graduates with economics degree

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (TSU News Service) – Julian Walker lost his vision due to a Nashville car accident in 2012. Walker had to adapt quickly to the drastic changes in his life, from learning braille and using specialized software to relearning simple tasks. Despite being completely blind, the father of four never lost sight of his goals.

On Saturday 44-year-old Julian Walker graduated from Tennessee State University with a bachelor’s degree in economics, as the only blind student in the spring 2023 graduating class. “I am proud of myself,” said the Nashville native.

Julian Walker at graduation rehearsal in Gentry Center the day before he walked the stage, receiving his degree in economics.

“This isn’t entirely about me walking across the stage. A lot of this is for my children, so they can see that you can get a degree and finish school even if you are blind. I am just trying to give them motivation for their journey through college,” he said.

Walker has three sons and a daughter ages 12-16. “This is about my family.”

Walker began his college journey at Emory University right after high school but didn’t finish. In 2019, he received his associate’s degree from Nashville State Community College. “I need to complete what I started back then,” he said, referring to receiving his bachelor’s. “I wanted to see if I could go to school as a blind person.”

Walker is one of nearly 150 disabled students who are served on campus. He noted that TSU’s office of disability services always accommodated him, no matter the class. “Anytime I needed help, the office was right on top of it,” he said. “Even if it was moving around the buildings, they made sure if I needed assistance, they would walk around with me.”

The nontraditional student also mentioned that walking across the stage served as a reminder that people with disabilities are capable of earning their degree. “That’s where the fuel comes from every day,” he said. “We need to see more disabled people who are aware of these resources at TSU. They can do it too.”

In 2012, Walker underwent seven surgeries in an attempt to save his vision. In 2021, he fell and injured himself, causing two minor strokes. After recovering, he got back on track to reach his educational milestone. Dr. Anita McGaha, Director of the Office of Disability Services (ODS), said she is proud of Walker for not giving up on himself.

McGaha said that not only does Walker represent TSU as a graduate, but he represents other students with impairments as well. “There is learner variability,” McGaha said. “Just because you learn differently doesn’t mean you cannot succeed. Students cannot allow their disabilities to dictate their success.”

The ODS provides academic accommodations for students with documented disabilities such as mood disorders, cognitive disorders, and physical impairments. Gregory Morrissette, the office’s learning disability coordinator, meet with the students and discusses how their disability impacts their academic setting. Walker said that the accommodation has made his time at TSU seamless. “The TSU experience has been great,” he said, noting how closing out this chapter with a commencement speech from TSU alumna Oprah Winfrey was remarkable.

Walker’s journey is a prime example of perseverance and determination. Now, with a college degree under his belt, Walker looks forward to utilizing his degree for his local family business, Germantown Pub, or working for a disability services office in Nashville.

For more information about TSU’s Office of Disability Services, visit www.tnstate.edu/disabilityservices/.

Nashville firefighter receives undergraduate degree from TSU

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (TSU News Service) – He’s been fighting fires in Nashville for 11 years. But now, Edwin Feagins Jr., is one degree hotter after securing his diploma from Tennessee State University this week.

Feagins of Nashville, received a bachelor’s degree in human performance sports sciences with a concentration in exercise sciences. A milestone that he was once told that he couldn’t accomplish. After graduating high school from Pope John Paul II Preparatory School in Hendersonville, he began his higher education journey at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) in 2007.

Edwin Feagins Jr. (Photo by Ryan H from Ryanhmedia)

Feagins started off his first semester of college with a .7 GPA.

“My freshman year of college was a lot of newfound freedom and responsibility,” Feagins says. “I wasn’t a focused student at the time. And I was told by my advisor that four years of college isn’t for everyone.” Feagins said he was placed on academic suspension shortly after. But he knew he was capable of walking the stage eventually. Feagins re-enrolled at UTC and continued his studies there for three years, until he was accepted into the Nashville Fire Training Academy in 2011.

Feagins, 33, says his grandmother, who is a former Memphis educator, was proud of him for being a fireman, but told him to finish what he started by graduating college.

A holiday portrait of the Feagins family. (Photo submitted)

“I wanted to fulfill that promise for her,” he says.

Feagins received his associates of applied science degree in fire science at Volunteer State Community College in 2014. Four years later, he enrolled at TSU. “I went searching for that newfound freedom (at UTC) but in retrospect, I should have leaned on my resources that I had available to me right here at home,” Feagins says. “I am excited and extremely grateful for the opportunity to even attend TSU.”

It was difficult being a non-traditional student while sometimes working 24-hour shifts, but he kept faith and believed in himself, Feagins says, graduating with a 3.3 GPA.

He noted that he had instructors at the university like Dr. Jason Smith, that kept him going. “His passion is beyond the degree,” says Smith, the department chair of the human performance and sports sciences department. “The degree was important for him to continue giving back to the community. Edwin has devoted a lot of his time to the community and to people that are in need,” Smith continued.

Edwin Feagins Jr., has been with the Nashville Fire Department more than 10 years.

“He has a servant heart.”

Smith says that Feagins has extended his services by becoming an adjacent professor next semester, teaching CPR courses at the university.

District Chief of the Nashville Fire Department Moses Jefferies IV describes Feagins as a hard worker who has been a ‘tremendous asset’ to the fire department.

“Along with his work, he has shown dedication and a level of commitment that is consistent with the Nashville Fire Department to prepare its members physically to be able to do the job and deliver the best service possible to the citizens,” Jefferies says.

“He’s just really a great guy.”

In the near future, Feagins says he looks forward to creating health initiatives centered around fire fighter fitness with wellness and health disparities.

TSU undergrad earns college degree decades later, completing a 30-year journey

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (TSU News Service) – Cynthia Jones will receive a bachelor’s degree in business administration next week from Tennessee State University. It is a milestone of success that started three decades ago for 60-year old Jones, but one she says was well worth the wait. 

“I have always wanted to graduate from TSU,” Jones, a Louisville, Kentucky, native says.

Fall 2022 graduate Cynthia Jones will receive a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a concertation in supply chain management.  (Photo by Jonathan’s Photography)

As graduation approaches, Jones says the feeling is amazing. “I am still trying to wrap my mind around this,” she says. The motivation behind her milestone, she says, is her only child Michael Jones, and her faith.

In 1980, Jones graduated from Springfield High School in Robertson County and began her higher education journey at Nashville State Community College. She eventually enrolled at TSU in 1991 but had to drop out due to financial hardships and seek employment. Jones worked in supply chain but was let go after 14 years due to company reorganization. Jones faced a number of difficulties prior to and immediately after losing her job.

“My brother passed (away) six months before they released me, and my mother passed seven days after (losing my job),” Jones says. After taking care of her loved ones’ affairs, she got back into the work force but for a significantly lower pay. Although she had the experience for employment opportunities, Jones didn’t have the degree.

Cynthia Jones. (Photo by Jonathan’s Photography)

“Nobody paid me what I made before,” she says. “My salary was 38 percent less than what I made at my previous job.”

But Jones kept her faith.

Always a Tiger at heart, Jones reflected on a promise she made to herself years before about walking across the stage one day. “Give your battles to God and keep it going,” she says. “It’s never too late.”

Jones son, Michael, 28, said he has always seen his mother work hard, and to see her walk across the stage on Dec. 3, will be something to remember.  

“She has been talking about graduating college since I was a baby,” says Michael. “She has always been a fan of TSU, so I know this is big for her. I am excited and happy that she is finally doing it.”

Cynthia’s son, Michael Jones says he is proud to be able to witness his mother walk across the stage. (Photo submitted)

Jones says there has been many lows throughout her journey with losing majority of her siblings over time, as well as her mother, but she knows her family will be watching over her as she receives her degree. 

“They are still here in spirit.”

Jones will be one of nearly 600 undergraduate and graduate students who will receive their diploma in the Gentry Center Complex. The ceremony starts at 9 a.m.

Those attending the commencement program are encouraged to wear masks as precaution against the COVID-19, flu and RSV viruses going around. For more information on fall commencement, visit https://www.tnstate.edu/records/commencement/ .

TSU undergrad earns college degree, fulfills mission 30 years later at historic commencement featuring Vice President Kamala Harris    

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (TSU News Service) – Delay was not denial for LaTonya Bell-Fitts of Nashville, who received a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Tennessee State University at age 50. The motivation behind her milestone were her three children who all have received college degrees in criminal justice. 

The tradition of undergraduates turning their tassel at the May 7 graduation took on a whole new meaning for Bell-Fitts as a non-traditional student. She said it is what made the moment surreal, also noting that Vice President Kamala Harris’ speech, reassured her that the sky was the limit. 

LaTonya Bell-Fitts at Spring 2022 graduation (Photo by Aaron Grayson)

“It was very motivational and inspiring for me,” Bell-Fitts said. “That was a moment I’ll never forget.” 

Bell-Fitts graduated from McGavock High School in 1990 when her son was only four-months-old. She began her higher education journey at Nashville State Community College but was unable to maintain the demands of her course work with her newborn, along with taking care of an ill family member at the time. She dropped out but was always determined to complete what she had started. In 2012 Bell-Fitts decided to pursue an education again and enrolled at Bethel University.

In 2016, she transferred to TSU. 

Growing up Bell-Fitts always told her children to finish what they started. She wanted to make sure she took her own advice as well. 

While Bell-Fitts was enrolled at TSU she became an administrative assistant in the Division of Student Affairs. “To be able to pour into them (students) … give them the love and guidance they need, helped me as well,” she said, mentioning that the students and staff also motivated her to finish strong. 

She is now a TSU alumna like her daughter T’Yana Jackson. Jackson said emotions ran high after witnessing her mother graduate, recalling those days  she almost gave up.

LaTonya Bell-Fitts and her daughter T’Yana Jackson smiles at TSU graduation celebration. (Photo submitted)

“It was good seeing her push through,” Jackson, the 2019 TSU graduate said.

“She’s an amazing mom who set the tone … it is not an age limit on doing the things you want to do.”

As her children, grandchildren, and entire family witnessed her walk across the stage to get her degree, she believes that she graduated right on time despite the setbacks. Bell-Fitts looks forward to returning to TSU to receive a master’s degree. 

LaTonya Bell-Fitts, her son Markese Osborne and grandchildren on graduation day. (Photo submitted)

“I had a mission to complete,” she said. “You have to walk the journey that God has planned for you, everything happens for a reason. It was very much worth the wait.” 

Visit the Tennessee State University YouTube channel at www.tnstste.edu to view the 2022 Undergraduate Spring Commencement Ceremony in its entirety.  

Department of Media Relations

Tennessee State University
3500 John Merritt Boulevard
Nashville, Tennessee 37209

About Tennessee State University

Founded in 1912, Tennessee State University is Nashville’s only public university, and is a premier, historically black university and land-grant institution offering 39 bachelor’s degree programs, 24 master’s degree programs, and eight doctoral degrees. TSU is a comprehensive research intensive institution with a R-2 Carnegie designation, and has a graduate school on its downtown Avon Williams Campus, along with the Otis Floyd Nursery Research Center in McMinnville, Tennessee. With a commitment to excellence, Tennessee State University provides students with a quality education in a nurturing and innovative environment that prepares them as alumni to be global leaders in every facet of society. Visit the University online at tnstate.edu.

TSU’s Oldest Spring Graduate Set to Receive Degree at Age 67

James Bowen
James Bowen

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (TSU News Service) – James Bowen is proving that college isn’t just for students age 18 to 22. Bowen is part of a growing population of older students returning to college, and will be the oldest student at Tennessee State University to receive his degree at the upcoming 2014 Spring Commencement at age 67.

“This is all part of me reinventing myself,” said Bowen, who will graduate with a master’s degree in Educational Technology. “I would like, in the long run, to encourage people to keep on learning. Our education is never complete.”

Bowen first stepped onto the TSU campus in the mid 1960s and played defensive back on the football team under Coach “Big John” Merritt while pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in sociology. He went on to graduate in 1968.

“Things were a lot different back then,” added Bowen. “We were a wild bunch back then and not as dedicated to our studies as students today. Heck, we even had a curfew.”

Bowen left TSU after graduation and pursued different career opportunities, including teaching, but ultimately ended up in sales, where he became one of the top 50 car salesmen in the country. “I was enjoying life and making lots of money while raising a family but there was something missing,” he added. “At age 65, I decided I needed to go back to school to start on my next business venture.”

Bowen is part of a growing trend of older students returning to college and wants to help those returning “navigate the waters” of the admission process and how to approach “younger America.”

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the most significant shift of student growth is probably the massive increase in the adult-student population in higher education in the past 20 years. Thirty-eight percent of those enrolled in higher education are over the age of 25 and one-fourth are over the age of 40. The share of all students who are over age 40 is projected to increase another 23 percent by 2019. It is that growing population Bowen wants to target.

“I want to help others make that leap and provide them some insight on the application process and dealing with students more that half their age,” Bowen added.

Life on campus, added Bowen, as well as students have changed in the 46 years since he left the University. “I want to serve as an inspiration to students age 65 or older who want to return but don’t know where to start.”

Students are more disciplined today, said Bowen, but the biggest challenge he, and perhaps those returning have to deal with, is the advancement of technology. He has been required to learn everything from computers to mobile devices and social media.

“It’s was tough at first,” said Bowen. “I started the process early so I could prepare myself for what would be thrown my way. I started with an email address, which I never had, bought a computer and started teaching myself the basics. I then slowly learned about the different social media platforms and how they all connected.”

Now that he is ready to graduate, Bowen is not only ready to share what he learned with others, but remain on campus with other students and continue learning. A life-long learner, he eventually wants to teach.

“Since being here at Tennessee State University, I’ve acquired this hunger and thirst for education,” Bowen said. “I would love to continue my studies and go into agricultural education and go into teaching. It’s a passion.”

At graduation on May 10, family members from around Nashville will file into Hale Stadium and turn out to support Bowen. They include his children, ex-wife, grandchildren and various other family members.

“I want to show my family members and anyone else that if you dream it, you can do it,” said Bowen. “I am proud to be an inspiration to others, whether they’re in their 30s, 40s, or even their 90s, and let them know that it’s never too late to chase your dreams.”



READ more student success stories including:

Johnathan Fitzgerald
Annette Scruggs
Karen Munoz



Department of Media Relations
Tennessee State University
3500 John Merritt Boulevard
Nashville, Tennessee 37209


About Tennessee State University

With nearly 9,000 students, Tennessee State University is Nashville’s only public university, and is a comprehensive, urban, co-educational, land-grant university offering 38 undergraduate, 22 graduate and seven doctoral programs. TSU has earned a top 20 ranking for Historically Black Colleges and Universities according to U.S. News and World Report, and rated as one of the top universities in the country by Washington Monthly for social mobility, research and community service. Founded in 1912, Tennessee State University celebrated 100 years in Nashville during 2012. Visit the University online at tnstate.edu.