Building a better home: Graduates to walk, hear alumni’s stories this weekend

Bobby Shipman

Brandi Neal poses with a group of Ghandaian students on her first trip to Ghana/Photo courtesy of Neal
Brandi Neal poses with a group of Ghandaian students on her first trip to Ghana/Photo courtesy of Neal

More than a year-and-a-half ago, Brandi Neal became independent from her aunt and uncle after a disagreement prompted them to cut her off, she said.

“That was one of my biggest challenges because they basically left me with nothing,” she said. “They took my car, my cell phone, all my money that I had, my insurance and everything.”

Neal said it was hard, but she knew she had to move pass it quickly and focus on who she wanted to be. She worked and stayed in housing over the summer and the university became her home.

Neal will soon cross the threshold as a college graduate with more than 1,450 eligible USI students.

The university will hold five Spring Commencement ceremonies Friday and Saturday in the Physical Activities Center.

Initially, distance is what first attracted Neal to USI.

“(USI) was the furthest I could go away from home without getting out of state,” Neal said. “So, I was like, ‘I’ll take it.’”

But then, Neal said, she fell in love with the university’s “small campus” atmosphere at orientation, as well as its picturesque scenery.

In her time at the university, Neal has served as treasurer of the Black Student Union, vice president of College Mentors for Kids and was an executive diversity scholar.

The Indianapolis native took an early interest in psychology and education, saying that she always knew she wanted to work with children.

She said she mulled over various possibilities for further education, while still using her psychology undergrad, when Provost Ron Rochon suggested she pursue education policy.

Now, after graduation, Neal will attend the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana to earn a PhD in education policy.

“I want to eventually end up creating programs for students who are at risk or have psychological problems, to help them actually get through school,” Neal said.

Neal said another thing that sparked her interest in education policy was seeing policymakers who have no background in teaching implement regulation.

“They try to tell a school or an administrator of a school how to ‘actually’ deal with children, but they are not seeing it firsthand,” she said.

Neal also became inspired to become an educator during her two trips to Ghana.

The first time was after Neal’s freshmen year, in the summer of 2012, which was also the university’s first time taking students to the country.

The program, called the Ghana Global Engagement, had students partaking in service learning projects as well as learning about the everyday culture. Neal said the trip taught her to have patience.

“Over there, they have no sense of time. Everything goes with the flow,” she said. “When you get back to the U.S., it’s like, ‘I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to do this. I’m on a time schedule.’”

She said the trip helped increase her interest in education because she got to meet many of the local Ghanaian students who, she said, don’t have the access to education that U.S. students have.

“Students over here take it for granted,” Neal said. “They’ll skip class and say, ‘I don’t want to go to school today, or I don’t want to go to school at all.’”

She said the Ghanaian students have a thirst for knowledge, but no means, resources or funding to go.

While at one of the local Ghanaian schools, Neal said they asked students to draw a picture of their happiest memory.

“The kids were drawing dogs, and churches, and their families,” she said. “If you told a student to do that in the U.S.: they’re drawing iPods and iPhones and computers.”

Last fall, Neal and a group of five USI women started the organization KESHO, which is Swahili for “tomorrow.”

The organization looks to make an “impact on tomorrow” by empowering women and small businesses.

The idea started after the ladies attended a leadership retreat that brings woman who have studied abroad and women from different countries together to learn about how they can utilize their international experiences.

Neal said they were inspired to bring what they learned back to campus.

KESHO has since held a human trafficking awareness event on the Quad, where they had students enter a simulation tunnel that shared a story from someone who suffered through human trafficking.

The group is currently holding a clothing drive for Exodus Refugees in Indianapolis. Students can donate clothes in the bins around campus. The drive ends Friday.

The women also hosted a gala to raise money and awareness for KESHO, where they invited the Board of Trustees, President Linda Bennett and other administrators to show their accomplishments for the year.

Neal said the group hopes to makes the gala and simulation tunnel annual events.

The ladies also held an event called Beats for Life, which is an organization in Uganda that makes jewelry out of rolled paper. All proceeds went to Beats for Life.

Neal was awarded the All Campus Student Achievement Award and was chosen for the provost’s top student award, which is awarded to 10 students on campus.

“The faculty, I guess, recognized me as a person who has great leadership abilities and is willing to make a difference” she said.

Neal said she has always wanted someone to tell her, “You’ve changed my life because you did this for me.”

“One difference I hope to make is – because of the retention rate of African Americans here is really low – I really hope to see other African Americans graduate. It is possible to graduate in four years at USI and I want to set that example.”

Of those eligible to graduate, 19 will graduate summa cum laude, 117 magna cum laude and 128 cum laude. Sixty-five graduates are University Honors Scholars – students who have successfully completed the Honors Program – and can be recognized by the white honor cords worn with their regalia.

The ceremony for master and doctoral degree candidates from all of USI’s Colleges will be held at 6:30 p.m. Friday in the PAC. The College of Liberal Arts ceremony will begin at 9 a.m. Saturday, the Romain College of Business and Outreach and Engagement at 12 p.m., the College of Nursing and Health Professions at 3 p.m. and the Pott College of Science, Engineering and Education at 6 p.m.

D. Keith Jewell, president of St. Mary’s Health in Evansville and a USI graduate with a bachelor’s degree in accounting and a master’s degree in business administration, will speak at Friday’s ceremony.

The College of Liberal Arts commencement speaker Bryan Harper earned his bachelor’s degree in communications from USI and is preparing for his 12th season with the National Football League’s Minnesota Vikings, where he currently serves as executive producer.

Eric Williams ‘89 will address graduates at the Romain College of Business and Outreach and Engagement ceremony. He holds a bachelor’s degree in management from USI, where Governor Robert Orr appointed him the first student trustee in 1985.

Lisa Hancock was selected as the commencement speaker for the College of Nursing and Health Professions. Hancock has a bachelor’s degree in nursing from USI and a master’s degree in health administration from Indiana University. She is senior vice president of advisory services at Marwood Group in California.

The Pott College of Science, Engineering, and Education commencement speaker is Harolyn Torain. She holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from USI, a master’s degree in secondary education from Indiana University and was an educational administrator for 32 years. She was the first USI graduate to serve as president of the USI Board of Trustees.

Guests of graduates participating in the College of Nursing and Health Professions and College of Liberal Arts ceremonies require tickets to attend.

For more information about all ceremonies, as well as links to other commencement information, visit

Live video of each ceremony will be streamed in the University Center East Conference Center Rooms 2217 and 2220. Livestreams can also be viewed online at

Neal said graduation will be a bittersweet moment that she knows will send her to tears.

She said her years at USI have transformed her into a more independent, sociable and confident woman.

“I’m not excited to be an adult. Those responsibilities I do not want,” Neal said. “But as far as my future, I’m excited to see where God takes me.”