BOONE — Appalachian State University’s freshman class welcomed the mother of a 1998 hate crime victim with a standing ovation at the Aug. 20 Black and Gold Convocation.
The new freshman class gathered at the George M. Holmes Convocation Center before the start of the 2018-19 school year — where Judy Shepard served as the event’s keynote speaker.
Judy Shepard and her husband Dennis lost their 21-year-old son Matthew Shepard to a murder motivated by his sexual orientation. Shepard told the ASU students how her son was a student at the University of Wyoming and was brutally attacked and tied to a fence in a field outside of Laramie, Wyo., because he was gay. The 21-year-old later died in a hospital from the wounds he sustained.
Out of this tragedy, the Shepards created the Matthew Shepard Foundation that aims to provide a voice and support for LGBTQ youth. The couple were also instrumental in the first federal hate crimes legislation with the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
Shepard pushed the Class of 2022 to take advantage of opportunities offered to them at ASU to expand their horizons. She encouraged them to travel, eat different foods, talk to different people and to embrace those who are different from them.
“Of all the things I can say about Matt, it was that his love of life was extraordinary,” Shepard said. “He never understood why people felt the need to stereotype or categorize people. He just thought that people were people, and we should love, accept and learn from them in a way that expands our own understanding of the world.”
As part of ASU’s Common Reading Program, ASU freshman will be reading the “The Laramie Project” — a play about the community of Laramie, Wyo., in the aftermath of Matthew Shepard’s murder. The Common Reading Program prompts students to read a book as part of their orientation to the university.
If someone were to remove Matthew Shepard and his sexuality from the play and insert race, age or anything others perceive to be different, Shepard stated it would be the same story. She said the play is about intolerance, hatred and lack of acceptance. She said even though people may have various reasons they are different, in reality there is much that makes everyone the same.
“Basically we are all the same with the same dreams and same aspirations — to love and be loved in return, to succeed in life, to be happy, to feel safe and secure … we all dream the same dreams,” Shepard said.
Shepard encouraged students to examine their own preconceived notions or opinions on topics and be open to learning about different ideas, solutions or thoughts from others.
“My mother used to say, ‘Judy, we have two ears and one mouth for a reason, because we should be listening more than we are talking,’” Shepard said. “Listening is absolutely one of the things we have to learn how to do, and talking less.”
One of the last pieces of advice that Shepard left with students was to become an educated voter and vote. She tasked the class with finding out what they need to do as students to be able to vote— whether that be to absentee vote from their hometowns or to vote locally.
Students also heard from university officials such as J.J. Brown, vice chancellor for Student Affairs; Chancellor Sheri Everts; Darrell P. Kruger, provost and executive vice chancellor; DeJon McCoy-Melbourne, president of the Student Government Association; Phyllis Kloda, dean of the College of Fine and Applied Arts; and ASU alumnus Carson Rich. The Higher Ground a cappella group provided a rendition of the ASU Alma Mater.
Everts provided some words of wisdom to the new freshman class: “I challenge you to be active learners during your time at Appalachian. Be inclusive, be engaged and please be kind. These are just a few of the things you can do to strengthen your success at Appalachian.”
McCoy-Melbourne told his fellow Mountaineers to take a deep breath, be themselves, get involved and embrace the Appalachian family.
“We call Appalachian a family for a reason,” McCoy-Melbourne said. “You should feel safe with your family, you should include everyone in your family — no matter what they believe, no matter what their orientation may be, no matter what their perspectives are, embrace who they are for the sake of humanity.”
McCoy-Melbourne challenged the freshmen to dream big and work hard.
“Don’t let anyone limit your success or your potential based on their experiences or expectations,” McCoy-Melbourne said. “While those are great things, you are you. You are unique and you are your own person. So believe in yourself like I believe in you.”
Students were then led in a “Mountaineer March” from the Holmes Center to the Kidd Brewer Stadium by the Appalachian pep band and cheerleaders.