Author J.D. Vance speaks at university convocation

Faculty enter Murphy Center at 16th annual University Convocation wearing academic regalia.

Photo by Alexis Marshall / Assistant News Editor

Thousands of students, parents, faculty and administration gathered at Murphy Center Saturday evening for MTSU’s 16th annual University Convocation. The event included several speakers, including J.D. Vance, author of the university’s summer reading book “Hillbilly Elegy.”

The ceremony marked the official beginning of college for those entering the class of 2021.

Vance, a native of Ohio, wrote “Hillbilly Elegy” in which he recounts stories from his youth and young adulthood. He said that while attending Yale he felt like an outsider because of his Appalachian upbringing. He said that when he recognized the cultural divisions between him and his peers, he realized that the United States has “a problem with opportunity.”

“I felt we had a really significant problem with the American dream,” Vance said. “This idea that no matter where you come from, no matter where you were born, no matter what color your skin is, no matter how much money your parents made — that if you work hard, you can achieve to the greatest extent of your abilities.”

He connected with students by explaining that upward mobility is more difficult for underprivileged people in places like Tennessee, Eastern Kentucky and south-central Ohio.

“There are fewer and fewer children that grow on the bottom of our socioeconomic ladder that are able to climb to the middle or climb to the top,” Vance said.

Vance said there is no single explanation for the decline of the American dream. However, he noted higher divorce rates, family trauma, the opioid addiction crisis and a decline in community engagement as causes.

Vance left freshman with a few pieces of advice for their coming years in college.

“Opportunity isn’t just about economics and jobs … It’s very often about the life you lead at home with your family,” Vance said. “Allow yourself to focus on things that will never bring you a paycheck but will actually bring the most happiness and joy to your life.”

Vance also told students that they belong at MTSU. He said that he felt like an outsider when he attended law school. Vance said that even though he suffers from “imposter syndrome,” he forces himself to speak up and work through it. He addressed freshmen in the audience who may feel like they don’t belong in college.

“You guys absolutely belong here. If you think you don’t, these people disagree,” Vance said, motioning to faculty seated in the front rows, “and they know better than you.”

Vance closed by telling students not to forget where they came from. He told a story about his grandmother who often struggled to pay for her own medical care but made sacrifices for his education. Vance told students not to forget those who sacrificed for them.

“Be part of building a bridge between those who have opportunity and those who don’t,” Vance said.

Vance ended his address saying, “I’ll be rooting for you, class of 2021. Do well; I know you will.”

Remarks were also made by Vice President for Student Affairs Debra Sells, Student Government Association President Courtney Brandon and University President Sidney McPhee. Each of them encouraged students to get involved on campus and work with faculty to face the coming challenges of college.

The event closed with MTSU’s Band of Blue leading the gymnasium in the university fight song, followed by the President’s Picnic on the Murphy Center lawn.

To contact News Editor Andrew Wigdor, email

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