By Chuck Wasserstrom
On May 6, Alex Upshaw crossed the McKenzie Arena stage as part of University of Tennessee at Chattanooga spring commencement proceedings.
Seven months later, on Saturday, Dec. 16, she will return to McKenzie Arena as a spectator–this time to watch her grandmother, Lorina Upshaw, march across the same platform to receive a bachelor’s degree of her own.
Lorina Upshaw, who officially completed her UTC coursework in August, will hear her name called as a recipient of a Bachelor of Applied Science: Applied Leadership degree (BAS-AL).
“Oh, she’s going to hear me yelling across the stage,” said Alex Upshaw, the recipient of a bachelor’s degree in business administration: management. “I was just in that moment: I understand all the emotions, how it feels to walk across that stage, all eyes are on you.
“You’re carrying the Upshaw name another time, so I know that me and my family–we’re going to be loud. It’s going to be amazing to see her walk across that stage.”
Lorina Upshaw’s journey toward receiving a bachelor’s degree started 53 years ago.
Then known as Lorina Burse, she came to UTC in 1970–in the University’s first full year as a member of the UT System–after graduating from The Howard School in Chattanooga.
She was one of the first Black students to attend UTC.
“Back then, there weren’t many Blacks at all. There were very few on campus,” she recalled. “I was like, ‘Where’s everybody?’ I had gone to an all-Black school all my life, and when I got here it was a little different, but I adjusted to it.”
Academics, though, were a tougher adjustment.
“I was not used to studying. In high school, I made good grades and was on the honor roll and everything, but I didn’t have to study,” she said.
After completing three full-time semesters, Upshaw transitioned away from school. As is the case for many students in the UTC BAS-AL program, life got in the way.
“I got married, had a family–and I didn’t come back,” she explained. “I said, ‘Oh well, I’m just going to work.’”
She went to secretarial training, which led to full-time employment. After a few years in the workforce, she landed at TVA–where she was a nuclear power group information representative. She worked there for nearly 35 years before retiring in 2012.
While at TVA, she attended Chattanooga State Community College, taking one class at a time as a part-time student. She graduated with a Management Transfer associate degree in 1999.
“All along, I kept wanting to come back to continue my education. I finally got to the point where I said, ‘Well, I’m going to get my associate’s degree at Chatt State,’ and I did that. But I still wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to come back here and finish up what I started years ago,” she said.
Doing that wasn’t easy or feasible–until the birth of the BAS-AL degree.
The BAS-AL program, housed in the College of Health, Education and Professional Studies (CHEPS), was launched in fall 2021. The fully online program was created to serve nontraditional contemporary learners with previous college, military or work experience–also known as adult learners–who want to complete their undergraduate degrees.
Once she learned of the BAS-AL’s existence, Upshaw contacted UC Foundation Professor Beth Crawford–the program’s adviser–and explained her situation.
“Dr. Crawford said, ‘Don’t you worry. Come on in and we’ll help you,” Upshaw recalled. “She has been there for me ever since.”
Said Crawford, “Lorina’s getting the bachelor’s degree because she’s always wanted to earn a bachelor’s degree and she was willing to put forth the effort to do so.
“When she retired from TVA, she wasn’t through giving to society. She went back and started substitute teaching so that she could give back, but she had challenges there. One of the things that she and I talked about specifically was the leadership challenge that she had in a classroom. The teacher is the leader and is responsible for pushing the leadership of everybody else in there, but the substitute teacher comes in with an automatic disadvantage. She really worked hard to demonstrate leadership principles to those kids.”
Upshaw said leadership plays a huge role in her everyday life and in substitute teaching.
“We need a lot of leaders today. I see that in the world, even in my church. We need leaders,” she said. “Somebody can stand up and be strong for what’s right and know exactly what they’re talking about, and somebody is not going to take us in the wrong direction. That’s what leadership is to me, knowing exactly what to do, how to do it and when to do it.”
Upshaw earned her place on the Dean’s List every semester as a BAS-AL student while increasing her enrollment from part-time to full-time.
She remained persistent and diligent as she learned to navigate campus software programs she hadn’t used in her TVA work, such as Zoom.
“I did have some technical challenges,” she said with a smile. “Now, using the computer and keyboard, I had no problems with that. But when it came to Zoom meetings, I had to find out what to do and how to do it. Then Google Docs and all of this kind of stuff.”
After a long and successful career, why put herself through the degree pursuit?
“I’m still living. I’m still alive, and I just feel like if you want to do something in life–I don’t care how old you are–as long as you’re breathing, as long as you have breath, you can do it. Just put your mind to it,” she said.
When she graduated from Chatt State in 1999, the first in her family to receive a college degree, Upshaw promised herself and her parents–Joseph and Lorina Burse–that there was more to come.
“It’s going to be quite an experience for me, just happiness and joy,” she said of the upcoming Dec. 16 UTC undergraduate commencement ceremony. “My parents were living at the time when I graduated from Chatt State. They were there and I know they would be proud of me that I finished.
“Sometimes it got difficult, but I prayed and was determined to keep pushing my way through. If you want to do something, be determined. That’s what I always tell my kids and grandkids: Just be determined. You will make it.”
She will be the latest in a line of Upshaw family members receiving degrees from UTC.
Lorina’s son, Reggie Upshaw, earned two degrees from UTC–a bachelor’s in secondary education: recreation in 2002 and a master’s in education in 2006.
Lorina’s daughter, Rasheila Upshaw, received a master’s in special education from UTC in 2008 and an education specialist: advanced educational practice (Ed.S.) in 2017.
Lorina’s grandson (and Reggie’s son), Dezmond Gage Upshaw, is a former Mocs football player and 2021 recipient of a bachelor’s degree in business administration: management from UTC.
And then there’s Lorina’s granddaughter, Alex, who can always brag about going to college at the same time as her grandmother.
“It was actually funny because we would call each other and just talk about our tests or what we were doing. We’d call each other and laugh about it,” said Alex Upshaw, now a Nashville-based human resources contact center generalist with Aramark. “It was kind of like friends talking to each other about classes. Having that and going through the same thing together was special. “Seeing her finishing something that she started was really motivating for me. If she can pick it up like it’s nothing, it opened my eyes to see that you can do whatever you want at any age. A lot of people have a misunderstanding of the age, like, ‘You need to be in college during this time. This is the only time you can do it.’ But seeing her go back and figure things out on her own and graduate and finish what she had started is very motivating.”