University Communications would like to offer a special thanks to these students as well as the members of the faculty and staff who helped us tell the stories of just a handful of the many outstanding members of the 2020 senior class.
When Tyrese Byrd was in 7th grade, he emailed a Furman professor with questions about the classics. “We had discovered it in school that day,” he recalls.
Several years later, Tyrese would enroll at Furman – not to parse Plato, but to sing. Furman Music Professor Grant Knox had heard the young tenor when he was a student at the Governor’s School for the Arts and encouraged him to apply.
Tyrese was a second-year student at Furman when he first performed "Comfort Ye and Ev'ry Valley" from Handel’s “Messiah” to a packed McAlister Auditorium. At a precise moment – when the theme came back – he was supposed to step forward on the stage and begin. It seemed simple. And yet, it was a fugue – the theme was always coming back! So a tux-clad Tyrese took his best guess.
“I sang for six minutes and went back to my chair like ‘I don’t know what I just did. I can’t feel my legs,’” he remembers.
Then came a new realization: That was fun.
Tyrese performed it again as a senior. This time, there was none of the guesswork about when to come in, and his legs felt fine.
He credits Knox, along with Furman Singers and Chamber Choir Conductor Hugh Floyd and Vivian Hamilton, his coach and pianist, and since-retired Music Professor Bill Thomas, with developing him into a whole musician.
“I loved my time at Furman,” says Tyrese, who will attend graduate school in vocal performance at University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, and Dance in the fall on a full scholarship. At Furman, Tyrese was the recipient of the Melanie O’Neal Cavenaugh Scholarship, the Mattie Hipps Cunningham Scholarship, and the Nathan and Sugie Einstein Scholarship. “It was nice to go to a liberal arts and sciences school because I got to know people who were not musicians, and I got to see what other worlds are like.”
An expanded worldview was a top priority for Davis Cousar entering college, but in some ways the aspiring social justice advocate had already seen all he needed to.
“I played football in high school, and I noticed that many of my teammates faced structural barriers to attainment because they were people of color,” Davis says.
“So I came into college with an awareness of the prevalence of racial inequality.”
Through Furman programs, Davis was able to visit 15 countries. And a multitude of other experiences headlined by an impactful internship at the Georgia Innocence Project only solidified a commitment to eliminating institutional discrimination and other barriers to equality that stem from race and socioeconomic disadvantages.
“It might seem strange that I’m interested in international relations and also social justice, but to me they’re all connected because the way I want to work in these fields is to listen to the people who aren’t usually listened to,” Davis says.
In the fall, he’ll begin work as a research assistant focusing on education equality at the American Institutes for Research in Washington, D.C. Davis has also been accepted to the International Political Economy master’s program at the London School of Economics but filed for a one-year deferment because of uncertainty with international travel and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I want to focus my work in public policy on promoting social justice on an international scale,” he says.
Morgan Franklin wasn’t sure if she wanted to continue to play lacrosse in college or concentrate on earning a pre-med degree.
During a recruiting visit to Furman, she decided she could do both – and more.
“Furman is a school where I could pursue as many opportunities as I wanted to,” says Morgan, a Preseason All-Southern Conference team selection and a Paladin team captain for the 2020 season, albeit one affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m sad that my lacrosse career was cut short during my senior season,” she says. “But I feel I’ve had a unique college experience because of my lacrosse career.”
Balancing the rigors of being a Division I athlete with her studies was challenging.
“The experience of being a student-athlete teaches you the importance of time management and having a good work ethic,” says Morgan, recipient of the Furman Bisher Academic Athletic Scholarship.
Because practice, games and classes filled much of her time during the season, Morgan scheduled other learning opportunities for the off-season and summers.
After her freshman year, she traveled with the lacrosse team to Amsterdam to play the Dutch national team and to South Africa, where she went cage diving with sharks. During another summer, she helped research an inherited heart disease, arrhythmogenic right ventricular myopathy.
But for Morgan, who will attend the Medical College of Georgia in the fall, a pivotal moment at Furman came during a late Saturday night shift shadowing two Prisma Health emergency room doctors at Greenville Memorial Hospital.
Her path was clear: “I remember walking out knowing that medicine was exactly what I wanted to do.
Medical school, which Zach Jasper will be starting in the fall at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville as a Paladin Scholarship recipient, has been the plan since he was a kid. Majoring in Spanish along the way most definitely wasn’t.
“I really thought I was going to be a biology or chemistry major because that’s kind of the pre-med route,” Zach says. “But I started taking a Spanish class with Dr. (David) Bost … and I just loved it. I got stuck on the Spanish major and was never able to leave it.”
That created a bit of a crisis until Zach realized becoming a doctor didn’t mean overcoming his major. Instead, it meant embracing it to be a better one.
“When I got back (from the Madrid Study Away Program), I was like, ‘Here’s this tool I have. How can I combine it with a drive to help others?’” Zach says. “My hope is to be a bilingual doctor. Having a doctor that speaks your language changes your relationship from talking through someone to being able to talk just straight to them.”
Zach has seen firsthand the effects of good communication – and bad – between doctors and their patients with his father, who suffers from multiple sclerosis.
“If a doctor took five minutes to listen to him talk, it changed his life,” Zach says. “Really, you’re taking people that are sometimes at their lowest point, and you’re that person they can trust. I want to be that person they can trust.”
Shekinah Lightner will forever have a place in Furman history as one of the student representatives on the transformative Task Force on Slavery and Justice. But looking to the future, the mentoring she received from professors in the politics and international affairs department created a love of research that opened a door to the joint Ph.D. program in public policy and political science at the University of Michigan, where she’ll enroll in the fall.
Few experiences as a student left more of an impression than meeting former NASA head Charles Bolden in November of 2017. Though Bolden was the keynote speaker at the Riley Institute’s national conference on climate change, the words he shared with students at a small gathering are the ones Shekinah has carried since.
“He was so encouraging and said, ‘Keep doing the work you’re doing, and stay motivated,’” Shekinah, a Hollingsworth Scholarship recipient, remembers. “And I guess sometimes I’m emotional because I was actually crying leaving this event. I felt like he had really touched my heart in saying everyone is valuable, and the work they’re doing is valuable. You have to keep doing your work knowing that it can make a change.”
Shekinah went on to become a member of the Riley Institute Advance Team, and Bolden’s advice seemed prescient when Furman began implementing the Task Force recommendations. She doesn’t plan to stop now.
“Seeing the impact the Task Force has had at Furman definitely does encourage me to keep doing work that is looking toward race and the impacts that systems have had on people and how we can correct that,” she says.
For Kelsey Milian, her answer to “Where are you from?” has a lot to do with where she is headed.
The educational studies and sociology double major was born in Tennessee but spent her early years in Guatemala and Mexico, her parents’ countries of origin, before moving at age 6 to Miami, where she was raised on music from around the world. But while playing classical violin in Furman’s symphony orchestra for three years, Kelsey grew curious about the intersection of music and identity.
And this fall, Kelsey will begin a Ph.D. program in ethnomusicology at the City University of New York.
“I really want to look at the message of studying the Western influence and how it’s affecting cultural identity in younger children in music classes today,” she says.
“When you ask them to name a composer, they always say ‘Mozart.’ Why not somebody else? Why not someone of a different culture?”
Chief Diversity Officer Michael Jennings had suggested she apply for a Moore Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill – the same program he had completed 30 years earlier. And when Kelsey attended last summer, she worked with an ethnomusicologist who was pivotal to her future in the field.
While at Furman, she was president of the Student Diversity Council, closely involved with the Hispanic Organization for Latinx Awareness and the Cherokee Native American Land Acknowledgement initiative, and was an inaugural member of the Native American Indigenous Association. Kelsey was also the recipient of the David Rufus and Eleanor Southern Hill Scholarship and the Schaefer Bryant Kendrick Scholarship.
Before she came to the United States, Anna Zhang was almost completely ignorant about Christianity. Now she’s on track to know more about the religion than nearly anyone in the world.
“I had never heard about Christianity, so it has been a new thing for me,” says Anna, who will begin pursuit of a master’s degree in Church History at Columbia University’s Union Theological Seminary in the fall.
“Honestly, I think if I hadn’t become a Christian I probably wouldn’t be interested in religious studies,” she says. “That’s how my personal journey, my personal faith, has been interwoven with my academic interests. It was this fascination at first sight that I just can’t let go.”
Passion for knowledge has driven Anna since she met two of her mother’s friends, who are pastors, in 2013. In 2014, Anna decided to adopt the faith as her own. She became fascinated by the Reformation Era and being less culturally invested in the people involved allows her to study the period “with objectivity and a fresh mind.”
Professor of History and mentor Tim Fehler showed Anna just how far down the rabbit hole research could take her. As a result, she calls undergraduate research “one of my best experiences at Furman.”
“I think it only confirmed my passion for the study that I’m going to do in graduate school,” she says. “l could see how an excellent historian who has already published books has done research, and I could learn from him side by side.”