Bittersweet Commencement

Uriah Richey

Bittersweet Commencement

Uriah Richey is graduating from the University of Tennessee without a chance to say goodbye — but with the support of a strong community.

by jesse fox mayshark • may 13, 2020

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uriah richey, who was valedictorian at fulton high school in 2016, is graduating from UT this month. (Photos courtesy of the university of tennessee)

Community leaders in Knoxville, take note: Uriah Richey is coming.

The recipient of the first Zaevion Dobson Memorial Scholarship plans to be a civil rights lawyer.

“I want to be a civil rights attorney, but eventually down the road I do want to run for public office,” said Richey, who is graduating this month from the University of Tennessee with a dual degree in sociology and Africana studies. “Because there is a lot of work to be done in Knoxville, and there's a lot of work to be done in Tennessee.”

Richey knows about the work to be done in her hometown. She grew up in East Knoxville and graduated from Fulton High School, where she was the valedictorian of the class of 2016. That year, she was one of the first two recipients of the newly-established Zaevion Dobson Memorial Scholarship, given in honor of the Fulton student who was killed in a neighborhood shooting in December 2015.

“I was not close to him, but I knew who he was,” Richey said of Zaevion, who was a 15-year-old sophomore at the time of his death. “He really genuinely was such a bright person, he was funny, he had such a positive and happy spirit.”

The $2,400 scholarship she received in his name (which honors his football jersey number 24) helped Richey along her own path toward becoming the first member of her family to go to college. She said it also put some pressure on her.

“I wanted to make sure that I was living up to that, and I wanted to make sure that they didn't choose incorrectly either,” Richey said. “I wanted to make sure that I was using all my opportunities wisely, and use them in a way that benefited not just myself.”

Zenobia Dobson, Zaevion’s mother, said in an interview, “I am just so proud of Uriah. She’s a good girl. She has her head on her shoulders. She’ll do great things, I know she will.”

Finding Her Way

Even though she enrolled at UT, in her own hometown, Richey said she had to go through some difficult adjustments in her first year.

“I thought I was prepared, and then I got to college and I realized, ‘I have no idea what I’m doing,’” Richey said. “It was very anxiety-inducing being a first-generation college student. Because I can't go home and talk to my mom about the problems that I'm having in college, because she doesn't have (those experiences). It was really bittersweet and touchy for her too, because, you know, she was really upset at one point because she saw that I was having such a hard time.”

She found help in several places. One was the Pride of the Southland Color Guard, which performs with UT’s Pride of the Southland Band at football games. Richey had been in color guard at Fulton and was part of the UT guard all four years of her time there.

“I met my very first two friends in college through Color Guard,” she said. “And it gave me a little bit of a head start on college, in terms of learning how to talk to people, learning the basics of college, getting advice from upperclassmen, and learning campus before (students) got there.”

Also key was realizing early on that what she thought she wanted was not what she wanted at all. She started out as a pre-med major with the goal of becoming an anesthesiologist. 

“I always just had this notion that I was supposed to be a doctor because I was quote-unquote ‘smart’ and did well in school. And people who were smart and did well in school, they went on to be doctors,” she said. 

That lasted until she actually started taking classes and ran up against an undeniable reality.

“I realized how much I absolutely hated science,” Richey said. “I don’t like science, I don’t like math. I will write 1,001 essays before I take a math exam and like it.”

That got her thinking about what she did like. She remembered a discussion of sociology in a high school class that had interested her. She also remembered a teacher during her senior year telling her, “You should be a civil rights lawyer.”

That teacher was Darrian Bruce, who had Richey in an AP Economics class. She remembers Richey well, including the comment about becoming a lawyer. It came during a classroom discussion of Zaevion’s death.

“Just hearing her talk about him and about gun violence and what she had seen in the community she grew up in, she just had a level of awareness that was very special,” Bruce said.

She said even in a room full of other students preparing for high school graduation, Richey stood out.

Uriah Richey

Uriah Richey in her graduation cap and gown.

“I think the first thing you notice about Uriah is just her level of maturity,” Bruce said. “The level of awareness she had about what was going on in the world.”

Richey eventually settled on her double major, with the goal of going to law school rather than medical school after graduation. She is planning to take the next year off to work and prepare for that next step, which she hopes will be at Howard University. Along the way, she is also interested in earning a master’s degree in public administration.

“I really want to be a civil rights attorney because I think that is my way of making a career out of combating social injustices,” she said, “not ones that I've just experienced personally but ones that plague my community and people who look like me.”

But she also wants to run for public office at some point — maybe the state Legislature, maybe something closer to home like City Council or school board.

That makes Zenobia Dobson happy to hear. She said graduation time is hard for her since Zaevion’s death, because her son had talked a lot about wanting to graduate from high school and attend college himself. 

But, she said, fighting back tears, “That’s what God chose for Zaevion.” She added, “I know in my heart that the Class of 2020 will go out and do great things.”

An Abrupt Goodbye

Richey said the sudden end to in-person classes and campus life had been difficult for all of UT’s graduating seniors. They left school for spring break and have not been back. She was a resident assistant at Massey Hall, and she didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to her staff and residents in person.

“It's so sad that we had all of those ‘lasts’ and we did not get to cherish them the way that we would have if this were a normal semester,” Richey said. “We didn't get to have our last staff meeting or last class in person where we have like, food on the last day and we watch a movie with our professors, or we have graduation, or the Chancellor's honors banquet.

“That was taken away from us, and I understand why, but it's still sad.”

She especially regrets missing her commencement ceremony, which was going to be held May 9 — one day before her younger sister was due to graduate from Pellissippi State Community College. 

“We’re supposed to have back to back ceremonies, and now that won’t happen,” Richey said.

At the same time, she said, the disruption has abruptly thrown her into the next phase of her life. Moving out of the dorm, she got her own apartment for the first time.

“The past few months have presented their own challenges, but they've also taught me how to adapt and to be flexible,” she said. 

Still, she holds out hope that this year’s graduating seniors will eventually be able to return to campus for some kind of delayed farewells.

“We need closure,” Richey said. “It would break my heart if this really is the end, and then we just move on to the next chapter in our lives without properly saying goodbye to the last.”

Whatever that chapter brings, Richey will have people rooting for her.

“We’re all so proud of her,” Bruce said. “To see all the things she’s achieved is just a real inspiration. That’s why we do what we do.”