Student Commencement Speaker Spotlight: Joseph Allen

April 25, 2024 - Emily Jodway

allenLike many students at Michigan State, Joseph ‘Joey’ Allen has always favored the color green, but it carries an even more special meaning to him four years later. Hailing from Plano, Texas, he discovered that in a state like Michigan in which the warmer sunny seasons can pass by in a flash, it was especially important to take time in his everyday life to find the bright spots, like evergreen trees, which hold onto their foliage 365 days a year. 

“With so many people affected by the seasons we experience here, I think that the evergreens are important to seeing that there’s always life even in the darkest hours,” he explained. 

This year’s commencement theme is Evergreen; the idea of holding on to one’s ‘greenery’ throughout life and everything we do. Evergreens are resilient and successful, displaying life even in the harshest, coldest winters. Spartans embody these traits; they are evergreens in a sea of gray that come together and an army of support for each other long after graduation. 

An Urban and Regional Planning and Economic Geography major, Joey has always held a passion for construction and city planning. But when it came time to decide on a college, he struggled to find a school that held its own program for urban planning, not just a major within an architecture or engineering school. 

“Our School of Planning, Design and Construction being part of the College of Social Science really jumped out at me,” he said. “I was pleasantly surprised to see how much advocacy and public policy was automatically weaved into the learning because of the college we were in.”

Despite the excitement, Joey’s first year at MSU was slightly marred by the Covid-19 pandemic and the necessity of taking classes fully online in his first year. But he found instant support from the college when he joined the Social Science Scholars program and its director, Dr. John Waller. 

“Dr. Waller was one of the first friendly faces I got to meet here, and was just so instrumental in making me feel like this was my home,” he said. “The program made me feel like once I got to campus my sophomore year, I was already going to know people and have a good time.”

Joey describes Dr. Waller (pictured below) as an inspiration, and someone who will always advocate for his students as they discover their interests and passions. Another mentor within the Scholars program is Mike Morrow, a College of Social Science alum and community mentor with the program who functions as someone students can reach out to for everything from career advice to a listening ear. “He cares so deeply about everyone he’s paired with,” Joey said. “He’s always interested in how he can find connections for us and how his past experiences might relate to what we’re going through.” Even through some of his lowest lows the past few years, Mike was someone Joey felt he could always rely on. 

allenThe Scholars program also gave Joey his first opportunity to travel abroad. He went as part of the group to the United Kingdom, and came home with memories he’ll hold on to for a lifetime. 

“Bonding with that specific group of scholars was life-changing,” he said. “It felt like the first time I was truly an independent young adult. Getting to go and travel and have those experiences with people that you really care about … it taught me a lot about friendship and trusting one another.”

Another organization that had a big impact on Joey’s college career was Mock Trial. Making new friends, even meeting his future partner, and being able to represent his school at competitions and being a part of success is something Joey lists as one of his favorite parts of his time at Michigan State.”

“Especially coming off of our virtual Covid year, you learn how much these little college groups will mean to you for the rest of your life, and how those people impact you,” he said. 

Even with a trove of happy memories to carry away from his college experience, Joey doesn’t shy away from discussing some of the more difficult aspects of the past four years. He talks about a particularly dark time during his senior year when he was struggling to find motivation and feeling unsure about his post-college plans. 

“When I was experiencing this, I talked with a lot of different people, some of which were also going through dark moments in their lives,” he said. “What I realized is you can always commiserate, talk about how bad your life is and you feel like there’s no way out … But the things that can motivate you are the ability to see your friends succeed, and that they’re able to dig themselves out of holes, find their purpose and stick with it.”

Joey again brought up the idea of being evergreen. “That’s exactly what I needed to see and hear from them, is that we can be miserable together. We can experience those winters in our lives without dwelling on them.”

One thing Joey will definitely speak on at commencement is the ability of his fellow graduates, as social scientists, to change the world for the better. This group of students have witnessed firsthand the political strife, economic struggles, and decline of environmental policy that is the reality of our everyday lives. But who better to fix these issues than a group that has spent the last four years learning about the ways in which we can transform the human experience?

“We’re in a period of history where I think a lot of people are tired of seeing the same things happen over and over, and feel like we’ve regressed from a lot of the advancements we’ve seen socially,” Joey said. “We’re seeing violence, injustice, conflict, and different perspectives that feel like they can never be combined. That feeling is very scary to our generation. I think it’s super important to say as social scientists, we can impact change in unique and creative ways. We can still talk about those issues with hope for a solution. Believing that we don’t have any impact is just as dangerous.”