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From a Rich Legacy, Promise of a Bright Future

Student speaker Jonathan Priester: his class will create opportunity


“I came to Boston with very few things in my bag, not knowing anyone,” says Commencement student speaker Jonathan Priester (COM’10). “Now I’m leaving with friends I consider family.” Photo by Vernon Doucette

Jonathan Priester had many valuable mentors at BU. But some of the best advice he got in college, he says, came from his peers.

This Sunday, as the student speaker at Boston University’s 137th Commencement, Priester (COM’10) plans to give back some of the wisdom he gained.

“I want to leave my classmates with an optimistic charge,” he says. “I want them to take confidence from what we’ve accomplished for what we’re about to accomplish.”

Priester says his address will focus on the progress of the University, of his fellow classmates, and of his family, which has a rich BU legacy. The advertising major is ready to sell a crowd of thousands on the Class of 2010.

“We’re innovators, business starters, entrepreneurs,” he says. “We’re a class that knows how to create opportunity.”

That confidence is one reason that Priester landed the speaking role. Each spring, graduating seniors with a minimum 3.5 grade point average or a personal recommendation from a dean are invited to submit a potential Commencement address to a faculty committee. This year, three finalists were asked to give their speech in a mock–Commencement setting, and after more deliberation, the committee selected Priester.

Priester says he’s flattered to be chosen, but he isn’t nervous. “I feel like I’m sharing my story with 1,000 of my closest family members,” he says. He’s had practice, too. In 2008, he was chosen to read from the “To the Mountaintop” speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59) at a tribute weekend commemorating the 40th anniversary of King’s death, a profoundly memorable occasion, he says.

“I felt like I had more of a heady task there,” he says. “I can stumble over Jonathan Priester’s words, but not King’s.”

King’s, and BU’s, historical legacy is not lost on Priester. His parents, the Hon. Melvin Priester (SED’72,’73), who is a judge in Mississippi, and E. Charlene Stimley Priester (COM’73), attended BU at a time when many black students were shut out of college admissions. His father grew up in Roxbury, Mass., and went to BU on a football scholarship. His mother, who lived through segregation in Jackson, Miss., came to BU as part of a University directive to increase African-American enrollment in the wake of King’s assassination.

Priester was raised in Jackson and never expected to attend BU. After taking part in a summer program for high school students at COM, he was sold on the opportunity to mix classroom and real-world learning through programs like AdLab.

“My parents supported me, but they never really pushed BU,” he says. “I came to the decision on my own.”

On campus, Priester took opportunities and ran with them — sometimes literally. In between his work for Ad Club and his duties as a resident assistant and a Howard Thurman Center student ambassador, he found time to run four marathons (Berlin, Mississippi Blues, and Chicago, twice). He studied in London last fall and cofounded the Minority Association for Social Change, the campus equivalent of the NAACP. He was inducted this week into BU’s Scarlet Key Society, an honor accorded outstanding seniors.

Priester also made sure future students would share his opportunities by serving on the Admissions Student Diversity Board and as a mentor to minority students. At the Thurman Center, he says, he had the chance to experience a “vibrant diversity” of cultures, political opinions, and races for the first time.

“Coming from the South, it’s just black and white,” he says. “Here it’s, ‘No, I’m Haitian’ or ‘I’m French, too.’ No one defines themselves in those flat terms.” That environment, he says, “let me look back into my own roots.”

In June, Priester will move to Dallas for a job as a digital specialist with JCPenney Corporate. He will handle digital marketing for the company’s Web site and perform analytics to boost its online presence, a growing field known as search engine optimization.

“I took a class on online marketing, and the focus was search,” he says. “I was like, when will I ever use this?” He laughs. “Now I’m studying the book cover to cover.”

And while he admits he’ll miss the BU dining halls (“I’m a firm believer in the meal plan”), he’s ready to move on.

“I came to Boston with very few things in my bag, not knowing anyone,” he says. “Now I’m leaving with friends I consider family.”

Katie Koch can be reached at katieleekoch@gmail.com; follow her on Twitter at @katieleekoch.


5 Comments on From a Rich Legacy, Promise of a Bright Future

  • Anonymous on 05.14.2010 at 10:03 am

    I cannot wait to hear Jonathan’s words on Sunday. He is a bright, personable young man that left an indelible legacy upon the university. Congrats JP!

  • Ahmed H. Ahmed on 05.14.2010 at 1:02 pm

    JP, so proud of you. You represent us all up there. Truly a pleasure sharing this collegiate journey with you.

  • Erin Shirley on 05.14.2010 at 2:55 pm

    I'm very proud of you!!!

    Wow Jonathan, what an awesome article! Although I’m not surprised at all by your accomplishments but wanted to let you know we are very proud of you. You represented your family, your extended family (The Shirley’s) and the state of Mississippi extremely well! Keep up the great work!

    Erin Shirley

  • Christal Shirley Porter on 05.17.2010 at 5:41 pm


    Congratulations Jonathan! You make Lauren and me soooo proud (~_~)

  • Anonymous on 05.18.2010 at 8:23 am

    Wonderful speech!

    As a Class of 1970 member and one of a handful of African American students at Boston University, to hear Jonathan speak was quite an emotional moment. We took over the Administration Building in 1968, among the demands…increase the numbers of A-A students. The diversity at BU today is pretty impressive…a far cry from ‘back in the day’. Kudos to BU for staying the course. And Congratulations to Jonathan for a great job!!

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