Chicago, IL,
16:21 PM

2018 Student Commencement Speakers Announced

Jamal McPherson, a troubled youth who moved around quite a bit, eventually found his true path with worldwide exploration in the U.S. Navy. His service aboard the U.S.S. Harry S. Truman helped to hone in Jamal a sense of discipline he had missed since leaving home at 15.

Although Jamal earned his high school equivalency diploma at 17 and later attended Chicago State University, he recognized the pathway he was on was untenable. Naval service not only provided an opportunity for self-reflection and personal growth, but also shone a light on three critical traits Jamal wanted to master: humility, discipline, and punctuality.

Upon completion of his service, Jamal volunteered for Urban Warriors, a youth safety and violence prevention program connecting veterans with at risk youth in Chicago. His ability to speak both candidly and from experience resonated with the youth. His distinct approach was picked up by the media, resulting in Jamal receiving a letter of commendation from President Barack Obama praising his commitment to serving the community.

Jamal’s dedication to community service also was recognized at GSU when he became the first recipient of the Global Learning Scholarship. This scholarship enabled Jamal to travel to Nicaragua as part of GSU’s Public Health Brigade, where he helped with sanitation infrastructure. A proponent of becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable, Jamal considers this experience a concrete example of his desire for greater personal growth and development through constantly expanding his comfort zone. Although a firm believer of education as key to success, Jamal never underestimates the value of self-reflection and knowing oneself.

In May, Jamal will graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Criminal Justice and later intends to pursue a master’s degree in Public Administration so he can help create policies for community development and empower youth throughout Chicago.


First Class 2014 Commencement Speaker Justin Smith has left an indelible mark on Governors State University informed by the values with which he was raised.

The youngest of 12 children, Justin grew up in the Crete-Monee area where he cultivated a desire to give back to his community. He was shaped by the support and encouragement he received from his brothers and sisters as he discovered and pursued his passion, music. Combined with his parents’ emphasis on the value of higher education, Justin’s contributions to GSU exemplify student success and achievement.During the state budget crisis, one of the most challenging times in GSU’s history, Justin was immediately on the front lines as a tireless advocate for the school, presenting eloquently on the values of GSU and higher education at panels and events throughout the Southland.

His support of GSU’s principles is reinforced by the depth of his involvement in the GSU community. Whether participating in the school’s student choir, or acting as a peer mentor, student ambassador, and orientation leader, or serving two terms as Student Body President, Justin embodies his firm belief that when someone gives, they also get back. “We’re all blessed to bless each other,” he often says, and his ability to view the world from multiple perspectives, share, and listen has helped him both succeed academically and grow as a person. His dedication to building and supporting his community was formally recognized in 2017 when he became GSU’s Lincoln Laureate award recipient.

Justin graduates—without student debt—with a B.A. in Business Administration with a focus on business administration and management. Threading his passion for music and community with his business degree, Justin intends to support the music community on myriad levels, whether managing and producing shows or helping artists successfully negotiate contracts.


Jerry Davis-EL is a champion for social justice, working with the traumatized, socio-economically deprived, and marginalized adults and children. As a behavioral health specialist, he utilizes his personal and professional experiences to illuminate and champion holistic solutions to injustice. In addition to counseling adult populations with mental illness and co-occurring mental disorders, Jerry also counsels children, adolescents, probation juvenile detention communities, and at-risk children at an alternative high school.

Jerry earned a Bachelor of Social Work Degree from GSU with a 3.5 GPA in 2016 after receiving the Illinois Student Laureate Award in 2015 for his civic engagement and excellence in curricular and extracurricular activities. On May 19, Jerry will graduate with a Master’s of Social Work.

Jerry credits trauma classes at GSU as a critical first step in reclaiming time lost to a vicious cycle of prison, poverty, drugs, and despair that began in his youth on Chicago's West Side. The GSU courses helped Jerry find healing, the promise of peace, and his own voice.

That voice has subsequently presented at national and local conferences and events on the issue on incarceration and higher education. He also co-founded Generating Hope, a student organization to support, advocate for, and empower GSU students impacted by mass incarceration. As part of his legacy, a scholarship was created in honor of Professor Lorri Glass, and Generating Hope, a student organization he co-founded to support, advocate for, and empower GSU students who have been impacted by mass incarceration.

Since his final release in 2010—after 16 years in and out of the Illinois prison system and one month after learning of his daughter’s murder—Jerry was determined that her death would not be in vain. He vowed to make social injustice the cause to which he would now dedicate his life.

And last year, in a nod to his achievements, the Cook County Circuit Court expunged his criminal record, officially creating a clean slate to launch his professional life.After graduation, Jerry plans to open a social service agency and write about his journey.


First Class 2014 Student Commencement Speaker Simone Jones has demonstrated a lifelong commitment to health service driven by her desire to help others flourish.

As the eldest of four children, this first-generation college student embraced being a role model for her siblings. She also sought to help others in her South Side community as early as elementary school, where she was involved with the Lighthouse Youth Center, which provides recreational opportunities for underprivileged populations.In high school, Simone continued to give back to her community, participating in the Truth ‘N’ Trauma outreach, working with students from impoverished neighborhoods dealing with violence and trauma. She also worked at a daycare center, where she saw first-hand the impact of early childhood experiences.

Although Simone was well-prepared to participate in the GSU community upon admission, she is quick to acknowledge the challenges of adjusting to the rigors of academic life: her first semester GPA of 1.7 testified to that. A testament to Simone’s fortitude, discipline, and drive, however, was her 3.8 GPA the following semester. Simone credits the community of Prairie Place, GSU’s on-campus housing where she lived for the entirety of her collegiate career, for the personal growth that helped shape her academic success.

Another pivotal moment for Simone was hearing Jerry Davis-EL speak at a Generating Hope student group event. She recognized similarities in their life stories, and his willingness to be so open about his past inspired her to keep pushing herself to shape her future. Their exchange also exemplifies a core tenet of GSU: peer-learning in an intergenerational community. Simone is graduating May 19 with a bachelor’s Degree in Community Health with a concentration in Pre-Occupational Therapy.

She plans to pursue a graduate degree in Occupational Therapy with a focus on geriatric care, driven by her belief that people should live their lives to their fullest capacity to the very end.