Dallas, Texas (Dec. 16, 2017) – More than 400 students received degrees from the University of North Texas at Dallas during Fall 2017 commencement ceremonies at The Inspiring Body of Christ Church. The celebration featured husband and wife keynote speakers Michael L. and Donna N. Williams, as well as a heartfelt talk by student speaker Ruhama Tolossa.

Tolossa shared the story of the journey of her young life, reflecting on her early life in Ethiopia and her family winning a lottery 17 years ago to move to the United States. She brought with her the book “It Takes a Village,” and shared remembrances from her childhood and her recent years at UNT Dallas.

“The reason I brought this book is it speaks so much to me as to why I am able to be here today,” Tolossa said. “As I continue to balance both cultures, I realize the beauty of both, and moments like today I am reminded of my roots, and it truly took a village for me to be with you guys today. We’ve all gathered today in celebration of our achievement. We couldn’t have done it if it wasn’t for each other.”

Tolossa, a member of the inaugural class of the Presidential Scholars at UNT Dallas, was an active member of the Psychology Club and Girls Helping Girls. She also served as a Student Government Association officer. She encouraged her fellow graduates to remember their time on campus, and closed with part of an Ethiopian prayer.

“Remember your roots,” she said. “These last few months have been very interesting for me. People have been talking about doors opening and closing …. In closing, may life’s errors and mishaps turn into building blocks, may you continue to be surrounded by people who celebrate your accomplishments, and may we continue to be the world changers we continue to be waiting for.”

It was also a milestone moment for the Michael and Donna Williams, who have given several speeches across the nation, but never together. UNT Dallas President Bob Mong described them as among the most interesting people in Texas – both have held positions in national government, overseen significant business ventures and chaired impactful charitable initiatives.

Donna Williams is vice president and program manager for Parsons Transportation Group, Inc., a global engineering and construction leader. She has over 30 years of program and project management, business development, and engineering design and construction experience in both the government and private sectors. She manages a multi-year contract with the City of Houston at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, a $1.6 billion capital improvement program.

Mr. Williams serves as the inaugural Distinguished Leader-In-Residence at UNT Dallas. His has been a life of exemplary public service and significant contributions to Texas and the nation, including most recently serving as Commissioner of the Texas Education Agency (TEA), when he oversaw the pre-kindergarten through high school education for more than five million students.

He was the first African American commissioner of the TEA, and from 1999-2011, he became the first – and remains the only – black American elected to the Executive branch of the Texas state government as a Texas Railroad Oil and Gas Commissioner. He chaired the Railroad Commission from 1999-2003 and again from 2007-09.

Their discussion at commencement was conversational and full of lessons, humor and advice that spanned generations. Both gave insight on their upbringings, rise to prominence and remarkable journey together.

“We have to live a life of purpose,” said Michael Williams. “Each and every one of us was granted a unique purpose and given a unique set of gifts. Where I get most of my joy is when I’m cheering you on. I hope through the course of your learning, you are developing a sense of that purpose. We have to be courageous to make ethical decisions, we have to be courageous when we set our sights on new opportunities that others haven’t seen. We have to be courageous when we take new paths.”

Each stressed the educational journey for the UNT Dallas graduates isn't concluding at commencement, though all should bask in the achievement of completing their degrees.

“Everything happens for a reason,” said Donna Williams. “God does work in strange and mysterious ways. It’s our job to get in the space and place he has waiting for us ... When you wake up tomorrow you’ll be university graduates. Your life is about to change in ways you can’t imagine. Enjoy the journey!”

Moments later, Provost Dr. Betty Stewart came to the podium, and said the words all graduates and their families were waiting to hear, and a rousing cheer filled the auditorium: “President Mong, these students have successfully completed the curriculum to complete their degrees. It gives me pleasure to present these candidates to you.”

Organized by school, all graduates at UNT Dallas are introduced by name and walk on stage to receive their diplomas.