December 16, 2020

Jessica Pope
Communications and Media Relations Coordinator

Distinguished Alumni, GOLD Honorees Deliver Commencement Address at VSU

VALDOSTA — Valdosta State University’s 230th Commencement featured a compilation video message from Blazer Nation’s 2020 Distinguished Alumni and Graduate of the Last Decade honorees — all of whom were excited to have the opportunity to offer words of encouragement and wisdom to the graduates and to have the privilege of inspiring a new class of creative, conscious, and caring Blazers ready to meet the needs of a changing global society.

GALA JACKSON, COLLEGE OF THE ARTS DISTINGUISHED ALUMNA OF THE YEAR, graduated from VSU with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Speech Communication in 2006 and a Master of Education in Educational Leadership in 2008.

VSU: What advice do you have for current and future graduates of VSU?

Gala Jackson: Stay curious and commit to being a life-long learner. Take the leap. Pursue the goals and dreams that scare you the most in your life and career. It always pays off in the end.

VSU: When you look back on your time as a student at VSU, what achievements are your biggest points of pride?

Gala Jackson: Graduated magna cum laude. Earned the Wesley Ren Christie Scholarship and the Georgia HOPE Scholarship. Joined Lambda Pi Eta, the National Communication Association’s official honor society at four-year colleges and universities. Served as a nationally certified diversity facilitator, an orientation leader, and chairwoman of LeaderQuest. Selected for Who’s Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges.

About Gala Jackson (Professional Biography)

Gala Jackson is a certified executive career and leadership coach and the founder and chief executive officer of InterviewSnob, a boutique consulting firm designed to elevate women to senior and executive leadership positions within Fortune 500 organizations. Her corporate clients and partnerships list includes Microsoft, Walmart, The Home Depot, Coca-Cola, Southern Company, Georgia Municipal Association, ROAM, and more. Her individual clients have secured visible leadership positions with NASA, Nike, Delta, JP Morgan Chase, Honeywell, Boston Scientific, Chick-fil-A, WellStar, North Highland Group, and similar prominent organizations. She has served clients in 40 of the 50 states and in six countries.

As a national keynote speaker and workshop facilitator, Jackson has been on stages at 250-plus events throughout the country. One of her most notable endeavors was serving as the national spokesperson for Southworth by Neenah Paper Inc.’s “Land the Job” campaign, becoming both the youngest and first woman of color to represent the leading consumer retail brand of paper used by President Abraham Lincoln. She is also a 2017 TEDxSpeaker for TEDxKennesaw State.

Prior to launching her business, Jackson was a higher education leader and faculty member working for VSU, Georgia Institute of Technology, Georgia State University, and most recently, Kennesaw State University. During her time in higher education, she led the most extensive and award-winning academic support program, Supplemental Instruction, at Georgia State University, helping the institution become a national model for student retention and partner with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

With a commitment to community service, Jackson was a VSU Alumni Association Board Member for 12 years, becoming the youngest board member to serve. She became co-founder and president of the VSU Alumni Chapter of Atlanta and established the chapter’s annual scholarship fundraiser, which generated $10,000 during its first year for designated students from the Metro Atlanta area.

Jackson has also served as a board member for the Showcase Group, an organization designed to support young adults impacted by the juvenile justice system; secretary for the Urban League of Greater Atlanta Young Professionals, an auxiliary of the Urban League of Greater Atlanta; advisory board member for the Georgia Institute of Technology Horizon’s Atlanta Program supporting underserved children in K-5th grades; board member for the National Resume Writer’s Association; and co-founder and former co-chairwoman of MetroOne Young Professionals in partnership with the City of Valdosta and the Valdosta-Lowndes County Chamber of Commerce.

Jackson currently resides in Metro Atlanta with her family. When she is not working on her goal to visit 50 states by 50, she is actively maintaining her reign as "Auntie of the Year" to her nieces and nephews.



KEVIN BELL, HARLEY LANGDALE JR. COLLEGE OF BUSINESS ADMINISTRATION DISTINGUISHED ALUMNUS OF THE YEAR, graduated from VSU with a Bachelor of Business Administration in Management and an officer commission in the United States Air Force in 1979.

VSU: What advice do you have for current and future graduates of VSU?

Kevin Bell: Congratulations on this significant educational and life achievement. Your accomplishments should lead to exciting opportunities, and the best advice I can give is to commit to your goals, be an encouragement to others, and find balance in life. My balance is among faith, family, work, personal development, and recreation. Choose your own list and keep them all in perspective. Best wishes, and I look forward to learning of your future achievements that will continue to make VSU and its alumni proud.

VSU: When you look back on your time as a student at VSU, what achievements are your biggest points of pride?

Kevin Bell: Serving as the cadet corps commander — the highest cadet position — during my senior year with VSU’s Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps Detachment 172.

About Kevin Bell (Professional Biography)

Kevin Bell served more than 26 years in the United States Air Force, attaining the rank of colonel and membership in the Acquisition Corps. With support from Air Force colleagues and industry partners, he successfully directed numerous research, development, and production programs fielding leading edge aeronautic capabilities.

Bell’s distinguished Air Force career included assignments across the country and a combat zone deployment to Afghanistan in the War on Terror. He was awarded the Bronze Star for meritorious service in Afghanistan. Additional military awards include the Legion of Merit Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, Air Force Commendation Medal, Joint Meritorious Unit Award, National Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal, and Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.

Following his retirement from the Air Force, Bell shifted his focus to the national security industry, where he spent the next 15 years working for Northrop Grumman Corporation in Dayton, Ohio. He completed his company career in September 2020, serving the last six years as corporate lead executive to senior Air Force leaders at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, as well as state, local, and community officials in the Dayton region.

In addition to his undergraduate degree from VSU, Bell holds a Master of Science in Management from Troy State University, and he completed the Air Force’s resident program at the Air War College and Air Command and Staff College. The Dayton Business Journal named him to its 2020 list of Dayton Ohio’s Who’s Who in Aerospace and Defense.

Bell serves on the Board of Directors for the Wright Brothers Regional Chapter of the National Defense Industrial Association and previously served as chapter president. He is also a life member of the Air Force Association, supporting the world’s best Air Force in serving and defending the nation.

Bell is married to Suzanne Green Bell, a Valdosta native and 1979 Valdosta State graduate. They have two sons, Justin and Jonathan, and six grandchildren.



JEREMY GOUGH, COLLEGE OF NURSING AND HEALTH SCIENCES DISTINGUISHED ALUMNUS OF THE YEAR, graduated from VSU with a Bachelor of Science in Exercise Physiology in 2010.    

VSU: What advice do you have for current and future graduates of VSU?

Jeremy Gough: Your professors and advisors are incredible mentors and invaluable resources. Be careful not to take them for granted. One day you will look back and see exactly how much they poured into you. Keep those relationships strong; they never stop rooting and fighting for you.

VSU: When you look back on your time as a student at VSU, what achievements are your biggest points of pride?

Jeremy Gough: I can't say enough about the amazing faculty in my program. They made it a point to create relationships that last. My greatest memory was being able to run a half marathon with Dr. LaGary Carter, professor of exercise physiology and associate dean of the School of Health Sciences; Dr. Mark Kasper, associate professor of exercise physiology and director of the Bachelor of Science in Exercise Physiology Program; and a few other classmates. The two of them continue to mold me to this day, and I was honored to have Dr. Kasper attend my wedding.

About Jeremy Gough (Professional Biography)

Jeremy Gough currently works at The Walker School in Marietta, Georgia, where he teaches students about human anatomy and physiology, as well as physical education; serves as head of the Upper School Physical Education Department; and supports student-athletes as the school’s first full-time strength and conditioning coordinator.

Upon graduating from VSU, Gough completed a sport performance internship with the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee in Colorado Springs, Colorado, before serving as a graduate assistant / strength and conditioning coach at Kennesaw State University, where he completed a Master of Science in Applied Exercise and Health Science in 2012.

Gough has received a plethora of experience in the field of human development, including serving as a sport physiology fellow with the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee. He and his wife currently reside in Atlanta, Georgia.



AMY ALEXANDER CARTER, JAMES L. AND DOROTHY H. DEWAR COLLEGE OF EDUCATION AND HUMAN SERVICES DISTINGUISHED ALUMNA OF THE YEAR, graduated from VSU with a Bachelor of Science in Education, major in Business Education, in 1993.

VSU: What advice do you have for current and future graduates of VSU?

Amy Alexander Carter: Don't chew gum. Really, chewing gum makes you look goofy. I think it's the teacher in me, but it does, in my eyes. Actually, advice ... in my experience, people who give even a little extra are successful. What does extra mean? Acknowledge everyone where you work, even those who you feel are irrelevant to you and your job. Don't be afraid to stay late to finish a project. If you plan to teach, volunteer to sponsor a student club. Give a little more, and it will pay off in dividends.

VSU: When you look back on your time as a student at VSU, what achievements are your biggest points of pride?

Amy Alexander Carter: The only significant achievement I can claim was keeping my business education professors on their toes! They were all amazing — all have retired now — and I mostly enjoyed the camaraderie I had with them and the significant training I received from them.  

About Amy Alexander Carter (Professional Biography)

Amy Carter serves as the deputy commissioner of Rural Georgia Initiatives for the Georgia Department of Economic Development. Gov. Nathan Deal appointed her to this role in March 2018. She leads state efforts to help rural Georgia communities become more competitive for economic development projects and identify new strategies for attracting jobs and investment.

Carter is a member of Phi Mu, a national nonprofit fraternity committed to helping young women become better students, stronger professionals, and greater leaders, and Georgia Children’s Cabinet, a group that works to ensure every child is safe, healthy, educated, productive, and connected to caring adults. She is an alumna of Leadership Lowndes and Leadership Georgia, a former member of the Valdosta-North Rotary Club, and a sustaining member of the Valdosta Junior Service League.

Carter’s community involvement has earned her a number of recognitions, including Valdosta Woman of the Year in 2002, the inaugural Leadership Georgia Dale Threadgill Community Service Award in 2004, the Valdosta Bar Association Liberty Bell Award in 2011-2012, the Loyce W. Turner Public Service Award in 2012, the Above and Beyond Award from 4-H in support of youth development education in 2012, and Brooks County Woman of the Year in 2014. Georgia Trend Magazine named her one of only four “Power Women” in the Peach State in 2013.

Carter began her career as a business and office technology instructor at Valdosta Technical College (currently Wiregrass Georgia Technical College). Most recently, she served more than 16 years as a teacher at Lowndes High School, where she worked to prepare sophomores, juniors, and seniors for future positions in the field of education. She championed programs aimed at ensuring students have the soft skills necessary to succeed in the working world and leveraged her experience as an educator to help ensure every Georgia child receives a world-class education, regardless of zip code. In recognition of her efforts in education, she received the Lowndes County Schools Distinguished Alumni of the Year Award, the Georgia Association for Career and Technical Educators Legislator of the Year Award, and the Georgia School Counselors Association Legislator of the Year Award. She was also presented an Honorary State FFA Degree.  

Carter has held many titles over the course of her life and has proven to be a passionate advocate for education, economic development, and rural Georgia. She represented House District 175, which includes Brooks County and parts of Lowndes and Thomas counties, in the Georgia General Assembly from November 2006 until December 2017. During her service, she served in numerous leadership capacities, including floor leader for Gov. Nathan Deal, chairwoman of Governmental Affairs, and later, Chairwoman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on General Government. She also served as chairwoman of the Governor’s Teacher Advisory Commission in 2016 and was a member of the Agriculture and Consumer Affairs, Education, Governmental Affairs, Higher Education, and Small Business Development committees. She committed herself to addressing a number of important issues — decreasing dropout rates, expanding Georgia’s Pre-K program, improving technology in classrooms, and championing measures to support law enforcement and corrections officers.

Following her tenure as a state representative, Carter served as executive director of stewardship and development for the Technical College System of Georgia until March 15, 2018, when Deal appointed her to the Georgia Department of Economic Development.

Carter is a deacon at First Christian Church of Valdosta and has two children.




VSU: What advice do you have for current and future graduates of VSU?

James Hugh “Jay” Roberts: There have been a lot of people who have sacrificed so you could receive the diploma you are receiving this fall. So don’t sit back and do nothing with this great opportunity. Go out and show everyone who sacrificed for you that you earned that sacrifice, and work hard to become successful. There is no limit to your possibilities when you work hard. There are more possibilities available to you today than ever before. Go take full advantage of those possibilities. Congratulations on your hard work.

VSU: When you look back on your time as a student at VSU, what achievements are your biggest points of pride?

James Hugh “Jay” Roberts: I played baseball my junior and senior years. I was voted captain by senior year, and I also won two awards my junior year.

About James Hugh “Jay” Roberts (Professional Biography)

James Hugh “Jay” Roberts serves as a partner at GeorgiaLink Public Affairs Group.

Prior to joining GeorgiaLink, Roberts served District 155 — Irwin, Ben Hill, Tift, Turner, Coffee, Telfair, Wheeler, Wilcox and Jeff Davis counties — in the Georgia House of Representatives from 2003 to 2015.

During his time in the Georgia General Assembly, Roberts was elected as both vice-chairman and chairman of the House Majority Caucus. Former Gov. Sonny Perdue asked him to serve as his administration floor leader, a position he held for two years. The Speaker of the House named him chairman of the House Transportation Committee in 2010, and he held that position for six years. He also served on the Agriculture and Consumer Affairs, Ethics, Economic Development and Tourism, Ways and Means, Appropriations, Rules, Game and Fish, and Transportation committees.

In 2015 Gov. Nathan Deal appointed Roberts to the distinguished position of director of planning for the State of Georgia at the Georgia Department of Transportation. He was tasked with planning the state’s transportation projects, including developing and implementing the Statewide Transportation Improvement Program.

Gov. Brian Kemp asked Roberts to serve on his transition team and to continue to serve him as the director of planning for the State of Georgia at the Georgia Department of Transportation.

In September 2019 Roberts joined GeorgiaLink Public Affairs Group. He and his wife, Sarah, a VSU alumna, have two children, and they reside in Irwin County. Their son graduated from VSU in 2014 with a Bachelor of Science in Athletic Training. Their daughter attended VSU for two years before transferring to the University of Georgia.




VSU: What advice do you have for current and future graduates of VSU?

Rachel Robertson Johnson: Always believe in yourself. Never second-guess your purpose. Wherever your dreams may take you, follow the steps and trust the process. 

VSU: When you look back on your time as a student at VSU, what achievements are your biggest points of pride?

Rachel Robertson Johnson: As an undergraduate, I was a research student working with Dr. Tom Manning, professor in the Department of Chemistry. I participated in a few projects that lead to writing and presenting my findings via published articles and posters. I had an amazing opportunity to present at VSU’s Undergraduate Research Symposium, as well as the American Chemical Society Symposium in Atlanta, Georgia. I believe the executive skills learned during that process really benefited my career overall. I learned how crucial it is to rely on other scientists and bring their skillset into the project to reach the common goal. I learned how to network and maintain connections. I encourage all students to take advantage of any undergraduate research program or project. At the time I did not realize how much of what I was learning and doing would translate into my career, but it was monumental and consistent. 

About Rachel Robertson Johnson (Professional Biography)

Rachel Robertson Johnson serves the cosmetic industry as a cosmetic chemist specializing in the analysis of raw material and technology in order to formulate innovative systems that positively impact the beauty industry.

Johnson formulates skincare and color cosmetics for more than 500 brands, providing cutting-edge solutions for clean, organic, and natural formulations.

Johnson’s work has greatly impacted the Indie Beauty community as well as improving the daily lives of black, indigenous, and/or people of color.

Johnson uses her placement to co-create beauty products that address common consumer issues for black, indigenous, and/or people of color, including hyperpigmentation and inclusive foundation shades. She currently offers custom formulation consulting to boutique and masstige beauty brands as The Charismatic Chemist.

Johnson is a fierce advocate of STEM careers, spearheading a program built to bring specific awareness to public school students about the cosmetic chemist profession. She currently resides in New York with her husband and son.



JANA’ L. SPARKS, GRADUATE OF THE LAST DECADE, graduated from VSU with a Doctor of Education in Leadership, specializing in Higher Education Leadership, in 2016.

VSU: What advice do you have for current and future graduates of VSU?

Dr. Jana’ L. Sparks: Never forget that life is not about the destination; it is about the journey that you take. Every day is a new day to strive to be your very best.

About Jana’ L. Sparks (Professional Biography)

Dr. Jana’ L. Sparks is an assistant professor of instructional leadership in the Department of Counselor, Leadership, and Special Education in the College of Education at Auburn University at Montgomery.

Sparks teaches a variety of graduate- and Education Specialist-level courses that provide opportunities for future leaders and instructional leaders to enhance their personal and professional career. She also serves as chairwoman for the Instructional Leadership Program at Auburn University at Montgomery.

Sparks transitioned to higher education after 17 years in the K-12 public school system, where she served as principal, assistant principal, and New Teacher Mentoring Program coordinator and taught a variety of grade levels.

Sparks currently resides in Newnan, Georgia, with her husband and two children.