To a standing-room only crowd in Kean Hall on Tuesday, a top Hollywood actress wowed Tennessee State University students with a message of faith, hard work, belief in oneself and not allowing fear to keep them away from achieving their dreams.
Taraji P. Henson, an Academy Award nominee and multiple award-winning actress and stage performer, told students to be focused, find their passion and have faith in God to help them develop their given talent to the fullest.
“God didn’t give me more than he gave you,” said Henson, who credits her “strong belief” in God, and her parents for her success. “I never gave up even though others told me I wouldn’t make it. I saw the bigger picture and I went after it. Find your bigger picture and believe in yourself, that’s what successful people believe in.”
Earlier, the actress received a rousing welcome and shouts of “I love you,” as TSU President Glenda Glover presented her to the audience.
Henson, star of Lee Daniel’s major hit musical drama Empire as Cookie Lyon, and recipient of the 2015 NAACP Image Award as Entertainer of the Year, spoke about her early start as an engineering major at North Carolina A&T University, where she failed pre-calculus.
“I knew from the start that that (engineering) was not my passion, but at my parents’ and my best friend’s urging, I went in an area I knew I was not cut out for,” Henson said. “Somewhere inside me I knew theater was where I belonged.”
Henson transferred to Howard University where she studied theatre. At the same time, Henson was working two jobs—one as a secretary at the Pentagon and another as a cruise-ship entertainer. At Howard, she honed her singing, dancing and acting skills, proudly earning herself a ‘Triple Threat Scholarship.’
“I followed my dream and went after the big picture, and that’s the beauty of an HBCU; they let you be what you want to be,” said Henson, as she reminded students about what she called the “added benefit” of attending an HBCU.
“At age 26 when I decided to go to Hollywood, they said I was too old. People will say all sorts of things about what you can or cannot do, but you have to be determined to go after your dream. Don’t let fear hold you back. if I had let fear hold me back you probably wouldn’t see me here before you.”
Later, Henson met with a master theatre class and again spoke about her HBCU experience and how the HBCU journey shaped her life and prepared her for her future acting career. Her message to students was to “be the boss.”
“Stay focused and follow your heart,” she told the more than 200 hundred students gathered in the Robert Murrell Forum. “What you do here will prepare you for your future outside of these walls. Tennessee State University is giving you all the tools necessary to be successful. See the bigger picture and you will be sensational.”
Henson, the single mother of a son, has lit up the big screen in numerous films, including The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in 2008 in which she earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She starred in From the Rough (2014) portraying former TSU golf coach, Dr. Catana Starks, the first woman coach to win an NCAA Championship. Henson is a 2011 Emmy nominee for Best Actress in a movie or miniseries for Lifetime’s Taken From Me, and also starred as Detective Joss Carter in the highly rated J. J. Abrams CBS crime drama, Person of Interest.
To cap off her visit to Nashville and Tennessee State University, Henson shared her message of encouragement as the guest speaker, when the university recognized the outstanding accomplishments of women in our community at the Women of Legend and Merit Awards.
The Women of Legend and Merit Awards is an annual celebration saluting dynamic women leaders in business and the community in a variety of fields. The first event was held in 2007 and is designed to bring awareness and raise funds in support of the TSU Women’s Center, and seeks to expose the university’s female student population to positive role models, networking opportunities and resources to assist in their academic, personal and professional growth as women.
This year’s honorees include:
· Barbara Landers Bowles (Leadership), vice chairman, Investor Resources Group
· Sharon Kay (Media), general manager, WFSK-FM 88.1, Fisk University
· Mercedes C. Maynor-Faulcon (Legal), assistant U.S. attorney, Civil Division, United States Department of Justice
· Sherri Neal (Business), vice president, Cultural Development and Inclusion, HCA
· Phyllis Qualls-Brooks (Government), executive director, Tennessee Economic Council on Women
· Renato Soto (Community Service), co-founder and executive director, Conexion Americas
· Wendy Thompson (Education), vice chancellor, Office of Effectiveness and Strategic Initiatives, Tennessee Board of Regents
· Renita J. Weems (Religion), vice president, American Baptist College