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MARTIN, Tenn. — Crossing a stage is nothing new for Natalie King, who competed for the Miss Tennessee Scholarship Pageant crown in 2016. The former Miss UT Martin and Paducah, Kentucky, native crossed another important stage Saturday as she received her bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of Tennessee at Martin. King was among 361 graduates who participated in the fall commencement ceremony at the Kathleen and Tom Elam Center and listened as Meg Kinnard Hardee, a political and legal affairs reporter with The Associated Press, who bylines as Meg Kinnard, presented the commencement address. Hardee is a Georgetown University graduate who holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Foreign Service in International Politics/International Security Studies from the Walsh School of Foreign Service. She is in her 12th year with The Associated Press. The ceremony included students who completed degrees during both the summer and fall. More than 530 students were eligible to receive degrees.

King, a 23-year-old transfer student, brought three years of college credit in fall 2015 to UT Martin but headed in a new direction as a communications major with a minor in music. Besides her pageant success, she is known as a member of the WUTM 90.3 “The Hawk” sports broadcasting team, a role she has enjoyed with the award-winning college radio station for the past year and a half. Although she has a college degree in hand, her work at WUTM will continue briefly as she remains on the play-by-play team for both UT Martin and Westview High School basketball.

King moves to an even larger stage in mid-January when she works a Skyhawk basketball doubleheader one day and leaves the next for Orlando and a five-month internship at Walt Disney World. She intends to leave her career options open following the internship. “I plan to work in the media in some aspect. I have not decided if I want to do radio or television yet,” she said. “I have a passion for both of those fields, so I’m going to apply for jobs in both areas and we’ll see what opportunities open up.”

University Chancellor Keith Carver welcomed the capacity Elam Center audience that included graduating students from 55 Tennessee counties, 15 states and the countries of China, Kenya and Saudi Arabia. The commencement stage party included University of Tennessee Board of Trustees members Crawford Gallimore, of Martin, and Julia Wells, of Jackson; UT President Joe DiPietro; and Mitch Pollard, president of the UT Martin Alumni Council.

Following special music presented by UTM Percussion students, Carver introduced Hardee, who grew up in Memphis, now lives in South Carolina and is the only grandchild of the late 8th-District Congressman Ed Jones, who attended UT Junior College, predecessor to UT Martin, and continued his education at UT Knoxville. Among his accomplishments, he was appointed the youngest Tennessee commissioner of agriculture under Gov. Gordon Browning and is probably best known for his service from 1969-89 as a U.S. representative. A replica of the lawmaker’s office is maintained in the university’s Paul Meek Library, which also houses his legislative papers. Hardee and her husband, Geoffrey, are co-authors of the upcoming biography “Grassroots Politickin’: The Life and Legacy of Ed Jones.”

Hardee, whose famous grandfather preceded her in 1984 as the university’s commencement speaker, credited a cow for her existence and revealed an early goal to become a spy. She traced her West Tennessee roots back to her great-great grandfather, who brought some of the first Jersey cows to West Tennessee. In later years, showing dairy cows earned her grandfather enough money to attend college - a necessary step in his pursuit of her grandmother, Llew. Hardee also told the audience that she originally intended to become a CIA agent until a Washington Post internship changed her career path.

“Journalism has taught me so much about people, American politics and our world,” she said. Her advice to any journalism majors present: “Question everything, leave your opinion at home, and always, always be objective.” She offered similar guidance to news consumers, adding: “Don't just consume news that solidifies what you already believe. Instead, take in all views, be true to yourself, but always keep your mind and your heart open.

“The only thing worse than actually being wrong is not knowing when you are.”

She closed by telling the graduates something they likely did not expect to hear: “This day really isn’t about you,” explaining that, the day was instead, about leaving a legacy and making a positive difference on the world. She reminded them that earning a college degree brings with it great responsibility. “Don’t ever think that you don’t matter or that your impact is too small,” Hardee said, before reminding the audience that her life’s accomplishments all started with a simple cow. Among her words of advice, Hardee explained the importance of compromise: “Our republic was founded on compromise. Unless we find that spirit again, it will not survive.”

“We’ve come to a place where the middle ground is beginning to disappear,” she said. “Take off your blinders, open your eyes and ears - and listen.”

Dr. Joe DiPietro, University of Tennessee president since 2011, congratulated the graduates following Hardee’s address, urging graduates to savor the moment. “You may see this occasion as an exciting end to one remarkable chapter in your life,” he said. “It’s also an open door to your role as a lifelong learner, an advocate of UT and the value of higher education.”

DiPietro later conferred the degrees and was followed by Mitch Pollard, who congratulated the new graduates on behalf of the UT Martin Alumni Council.


PHOTO CAPTION – Meg Kinnard Hardee, UT Martin fall commencement speaker.

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