Students choose leaders who fight for justice as 2024 commencement speakers

Beloit College students have chosen Tennessee State Rep. Justin J. Pearson and Oceana R. Gilliam ’17 to address them at commencement on May 12.

April 8, 2024 - Beloit, Wisconsin — Beloit College students have chosen Tennessee State Rep. Justin J. Pearson and Oceana R. Gilliam ’17 to address them at commencement on May 12. Gilliam, a Beloit College Trustee since 2021, is also engaged to Pearson and serves as his Chief of Staff. She was a leading force behind Pearson’s two primary and general election victories.

Senior class officers develop a list of potential speakers based on attributes they believe are important to the class, and then select those they would like the President’s Office to approach.

A community organizer, Pearson was elected to the Tennessee General Assembly in January 2023. Less than three months later, following a tragic mass shooting in Nashville, he was expelled along with two other legislators for protesting gun violence on the House floor. Local authorities in Memphis and Nashville reinstated Pearson several days later, and when Pearson ran for the office again in August, he won with 94 percent of the vote.

Born and raised in Memphis and valedictorian of his high school class, Pearson graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine in 2017 with degrees in government and legal studies and education studies. After working in Boston as special assistant to the CEO of Year Up, a national workforce development non-profit, he returned to Memphis during the pandemic. There, he co-founded Memphis Community Against the Pipeline, now known as Memphis Community Against Pollution (MCAP), a coalition of residents and community organizations that defeated a multibillion-dollar crude oil pipeline project that would have poisoned Memphis’s drinking water and stolen land from South Memphis residents.

Pearson’s advocacy and leadership inspired The Sierra Club to recognize him as the 2023 National Changemaker of the Year and The Root magazine to declare him as one of the 100 Most Influential Black Americans in 2022.

Gilliam, a Los Angeles native, leads Pearson’s campaign and District 86’s community outreach initiatives, and helps shape legislation that focuses on reducing poverty, eradicating gun violence, and enhancing community safety. Before serving as Pearson’s Chief of Staff, Gilliam was a Senior Project Manager at the Center for Justice Innovation, where she provided technical assistance to jurisdictions to help system leaders develop and launch alternatives to incarceration programs.

During her undergraduate and graduate coursework, Gilliam engaged in rigorous research and extensive social justice service, leading to many accolades. In 2016, Gilliam was one of only 30 scholars selected out of 200 applicants to the Princeton University Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs’s Junior Summer Institute, where she completed graduate-level coursework and drafted policy memorandums and a comprehensive report on Medicaid expansions in the state of Florida.

At Beloit College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and Russian, Gilliam was a Ronald E. McNair Undergraduate Research Scholar and explored the unique concept of race in 18th and 19th century Russia and designed and implemented an independent research project entitled “Black Russians? Gannibal, Pushkin, and the Other in Russian Perceptions of Race,” that was published in The Birch Undergraduate Research Journal at Columbia University. In addition to her academic pursuits, Gilliam founded and coordinated DreamGirls, a support group that created a safe space for Black women at Beloit.

Gilliam earned a master’s in public policy and later received the 2023 Bruin Excellence in Civic Engagement Award from the prestigious UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. Gilliam will attend the University of Memphis School of Law this fall.

About Beloit College

Beloit College is a private liberal arts college in Beloit, Wisconsin, recognized for its longstanding commitment to curricular innovation, as well as hands-on, active-learning, and international education programs. The Beloit College community is diverse and noted for its passionate engagement with ideas and the world; its students are from nearly every state as well as 44 nations. Beloit College offers 50+ majors, 30 minors, dual-degree and pre-professional programs, 100 study abroad programs, and several domestic study programs. For more information, visit

April 08, 2024


Elizabeth Conlisk

This site uses cookies to improve your experience. Read our Web Privacy Policy for more information.

Got it! ×