One by one, the LEAD Academy Class of 2017 dropped the mic.

Well, not literally.

But in publicly declaring where they will attend college in the fall, each senior put their own individual mark on what is a LEAD tradition: Senior Signing Day, held this year inside the Curb Event Center at Belmont University.

Before more than 2,100 students, families, friends and supporters, the senior class -- the fourth consecutive to earn 100 percent acceptance to college -- proudly declared where their next educational chapters will begin. They clapped. They smiled. They celebrated.

They owned their moment.

“My name is Jerchelle Chaney and in the year 2021, I WILL graduate from Tennessee State University!”

The event is the culmination of years of hard work, grit and determination by the students and staff at LEAD Academy. This wasn’t lost on any of the speakers for the celebration, which included Gov. Bill Haslam and First Lady Crissy Haslam, Belmont president Dr. Bob Fisher and keynote speaker Marcus Whitney, who focused his remarks on challenging one’s comfort zone and doing what is right by one another, especially when social injustice persists.

“Look for the light,” Mr. Whitney said. “It’s always there. There are always people working for what is right and good. Don’t ever forget that. This morning, we are gathered to acknowledge and affirm that you are the light. You are the hope. You are the good in the world.”

Mr. Whitney was introduced by LEAD senior Kelsi Morgan, who shared the story of when she and her classmates announced to the entire LEAD Academy student body that they were the fourth consecutive class to earn 100 percent acceptance to college earlier this year.

“I remember that I stood on the left end of the banner while I proudly held it up,” she said. “I looked over to the right of me and saw the smiles on everyone’s faces -- whether they were my best friends or just regular classmates. Right then and there, I knew that there was no doubt that the 42 of us will make the world a better place, both as a family and as loving individuals.”

Gov. Bill Haslam and First Lady Crissy Haslam kicked off the event by congratulating the students for their determination and, for many, being the first in their families to go to college. Gov. Haslam touched on a common theme throughout the morning: persistence and perseverance.

“We need you to not just go to college,” the Governor said. “But please listen to me on this part really clearly. We need you to finish. We need you to complete your degree.”

Dr. Bob Fisher welcomed the extended LEAD family to Belmont and focused his remarks on the idea of being a servant to others.

“Take your talents and abilities, connect them to that purpose and you will have an amazing life,” Dr. Fisher said. “It’s our privilege to be your host today. Welcome.”

The ceremony began with LEAD CEO Chris Reynolds addressing the reason why LEAD hosts a Senior Signing Day in the first place.

“I know y’all have seen the clips of high school athletes signing their letters of intent to play sports in college,” Reynolds said. “That is a great tradition, but our students have overcome tremendous challenges to be here and we believe they deserve the same recognition. Most of our students will be the first in their families to attend college and are living proof that zip code does not have to determine your destiny.

“Thank you for joining us today, as we give our students the spotlight as they claim the next step in their educational journey.”

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