By Harry Minium

There was comedy. There were videos. Yes, Old Dominion University's 28th annual new student convocation, held Friday afternoon at Chartway Arena, was surprisingly entertaining, said some of the several thousand freshmen who attended.

But freshman Austin Fairbanks from Charlottesville had another take.

"It was inspirational," said Fairbanks, the first in his family to attend college.

Perhaps the most inspirational moment came when new ODU President Brian O. Hemphill, Ph.D., asked all first-generation students to stand. Hundreds did.

President Hemphill told the students a little about his life. He grew up in rural Spring Hope, North Carolina, about 45 minutes east of Raleigh, and attended nearby St. Augustine's University, a small, private institution and one of the nation's Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

He was also a first-generation student, with all the same emotions and fears that most standing were likely experiencing.

"I want each of you to know, that as I stood in that same place, I was nervous, excited and a little bit scared," he said. "These are the many emotions that you may be feeling as a first-generation college student.

"But at the same time, I was determined - determined to learn, to grow, to succeed. With the help of the university family and my immediate family, I did just that. I am confident that you will attain the same sense of accomplishment right here at Old Dominion University."

ODU has been ranked among the nation's best institutions for graduating first-generation students. The University has invested in resources to help students graduate and thus improve their social mobility. The University has a Student Success Center that provides tutoring and mentoring for first-generation students.

Everyone on the stage offered encouragement for each student who began classes Saturday.

That included Scott Shellstrom, the featured speaker. The author of four books whose inspirational videos have more than 35 million views, Shellstrom told the students that he is dyslexic, a learning disability that wasn't diagnosed until he was in college.

Students teased him for being "stupid" in elementary school. In high school, he was told he wasn't applying himself.

It destroyed his self-esteem until he learned in college that dyslexia can be overcome and that some geniuses, such as Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton, may have been dyslexic.

"Just like that, it changed my perspective," he said. "No longer was I stupid, lazy and learning disabled. I was gifted."

He ended his presentation by saying: "Today, you are about to go forward and face the toughest challenge you have ever face. Get out there and release your inner da Vinci."

With that, Shellstrom took a brush in hand and painted a depiction of "Mona Lisa," the master creation of Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci.

He painted it upside down, as perhaps only someone with dyslexia can do, then turned it right side up.

The crowd cheered. Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Austin Agho said Shellstrom's presentation moved him, then spoke emotionally to students.

"This is your time," he said. "Discover yourself. Make new friends. Ask a lot of questions.

"This is your space. You have earned the right to be here."

Don Stansberry, vice president of student engagement and enrollment services, which focuses on student activities and success, said, "There will be times when you face challenges. There will be times when you fail.

"And, as a Monarch, we step up and face our challenges and overcome them. And we are here to help you along the way. Don't be afraid to ask for help or make a new friend."

President Hemphill spoke to ODU's status as one of the most diverse universities in the nation and how the student body has changed to reflect demographic changes in America.

He asked students to stand as he called out different majors, and it was evident there is a diversity in interests as well, from education to the arts to sciences.

Most students appear to have come to ODU with a major in mind, including Annie Newton, a freshman from Baltimore who will major in criminal justice and hopes to become a forensic scientist. She was impressed with ODU.

"President Hemphill seems very approachable and had a great message," she said. "I've really enjoyed being at ODU. It's not too big and not too small. I love the campus."

Armonte Dickerson, a freshman from Accomack County on the Eastern Shore, said he thought the convocation would be boring, but said it was anything but.

"It was great to meet all of the people there and to hear from University officials," he said. "The fact that our president is a first-generation student is going to give some of us that extra oomph to get where he is."

With students still standing, President Hemphill said, "I want you to look around the room. I want you to know this is fundamental to what ODU is all about, getting you up on your feet and engaged in your education.

"You are the reason we are here. You are the reason that we chose to work in higher education. Now, it's time for you to find your reason.

"Please remember you are not alone on this journey. Under no circumstance, should you give up on pursuing your degree here at ODU without allowing us to help you fight for it. Your professors, your peers, your family members and your loved ones are all here to support you for these next four years and beyond."

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