December commencement will be 100th for Tennessee Tech volunteer

COOKEVILLE – Lelia Gibson, Director of Communications and Special Projects at Tennessee Tech’s College of Business, first volunteered to help with setup during a graduation 20 years ago. This Dec. 17, she will be volunteering for her 99th and 100th commencement ceremonies.

The university will hold two fall commencement ceremonies Friday, Dec. 17 in the Hooper Eblen Center. A ceremony at noon will honor graduates from the College of Graduate Studies, College of Engineering, College of Fine Arts, College of Interdisciplinary Studies and the Whitson-Hester School of Nursing. A 3 p.m. ceremony will be held for the College of Graduate Studies, College of Agriculture and Human Ecology, College of Arts and Sciences, College of Business and College of Education.

Gibson will be working behind the scenes at both, just like she has for two decades.

“Back during that first time, one of the people who work graduation came in to help with my College of Business Banquet, so I said to her, ‘Let me come help you with graduation!’ But then, you know, once you volunteer, you always volunteer,” Gibson said with a laugh.

She started out working as an usher, but as she learned the ropes year after year, she gradually took on the additional role of coordinating the ushers and helping to direct the faculty and deans to their places for the event.

“I have a very forceful way,” she joked. “They say, ‘Oh that’s Lelia with the teacher voice.’”

Though things can get hectic behind the scenes during a graduation, Gibson said what keeps her coming back every year is seeing the excitement in the students and their families during the big day. She also enjoys getting to see her own business students graduate and being able to celebrate that with them.

“Leila is always someone you can count on to volunteer. She always has the best interests of others at heart, and you know you can rely on her,” said Denise Colwell, who leads the commencement event efforts at Tech. “Leila has so much knowledge and experience and selflessly gives her time and energy year after year. Tech is a better place because of people like her.”

One of the biggest changes she’s seen over the years is when Tech moved to holding two graduation ceremonies in a day instead of one. The average number of graduating students had grown so large that there became no way to accommodate them all with their families and loved ones in a single ceremony.

“At one point people were getting upset because we couldn’t guarantee that they’d have seats during that graduation ceremony. And there were a couple times we had to get buses to come and bring people into the campus,” Gibson recalls. “The two graduation ceremonies have made such a difference.”

Gibson had intended to make her 90th ceremony her last, however after she popped in to help for a short while with her 91st, she found herself continuing to volunteer again and again.

“I was always taught to have a servant’s heart,” she said. “When you’re given something, you should give back and help people – that’s always how I’ve seen it. This is a service to the university that I love, and I want to see succeed. Plus, it’s really fun to be in the midst of everything on graduation day.”

For more information about Tech’s fall commencement plans, visit

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