Discover the inspiring journey of Jack Smithey, a first-generation college student at ETSU who graduates during Commencement later this month. 

All of the East Tennessee State University students who cross the commencement stage later this month will no doubt feel a range of emotions, from a deep sense of pride and excitement to reflective nostalgia and gratitude.    

It will be especially meaningful for senior James “Jack” Smithey, an interior architecture major who already has a job lined up in Nashville.   

On December 16, 2009 – 14 years to the day from ETSU’s commencement ceremony – he made a promise to his dad.  

The pledge: He would attend and ultimately graduate from college.   

“My grandfather had gotten into some trouble, and so many people I knew had dropped out of high school and never even made it to college,” said Smithey. “I made a promise that day to keep my nose clean, work hard and graduate from college.”  

“That I get to walk across that stage exactly 14 years after I made the promise is just really special,” he added.  

Smithey has achieved considerable milestones during his time in Johnson City.    

He’s a first-generation college student who has enjoyed major hands-on training at ETSU, something that has helped him secure a job working in the cabinet industry.   

He’s also had mentors along the way, forging both professional and personal relationships.   

He regularly works out in the CPA with Ben Daugherty, ETSU’s director of operations. He also received mentoring from ETSU President Dr. Brian Noland.  

“I got to know President Noland really well on a study abroad trip in Rome,” he said. “I talk to him a lot, getting guidance from him and so many others.”  

Over the years, Smithey’s family has endured hardships.  

His dad dropped out of school in the ninth grade to care for his siblings and mother, who was dying.   

Smithey, a graduate of Walter M. Williams High School in Burlington, North Carolina, came to ETSU to play football. But the COVID-19 pandemic derailed those plans.  

“Life is hard and challenging, but you have to keep pushing and keep working,” he said. “If you do, good things will happen. And ETSU has helped me so much along the way.”  

He added: “My mom and dad worked so hard, struggled so much to help me succeed. I want to show them that their struggle was worth it.”  

Smithey will receive his degree in interior architecture on Saturday, Dec. 16. Watch the livestream, and learn more here.

East Tennessee State University was founded in 1911 with a singular mission: to improve the quality of life for people in the region and beyond. Through its world-class health sciences programs and interprofessional approach to health care education, ETSU is a highly respected leader in rural health research and practices. The university also boasts nationally ranked programs in the arts, technology, computing, and media studies. ETSU serves approximately 14,000 students each year and is ranked among the top 10 percent of colleges in the nation for students graduating with the least amount of debt.

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