OXFORD, Miss. – As thousands of University of Mississippi undergraduates begin classes this week, 15 freshmen make up UM’s first class of the Mississippi Excellence in Teaching Program, an all-inclusive scholarship established in January with $12.95 million in external funding to attract top-performing students to study education.
The group hails from across Mississippi and neighboring states and has a mean incoming grade-point average of 4.0 and average ACT score of 28.5. The aspiring teachers gathered for the first time Aug. 23 at the Lyceum to meet with Chancellor Dan Jones, Provost Morris Stocks and UM education faculty.
“I know enough about you all to know that each of you can do whatever you want in life,” Jones said in his opening remarks. “But I think what you’ve chosen is as good a way to spend a life as there is. I’m a physician, but I’m also a teacher and an administrator. Out of all of these, it’s the teacher part that has given me the most joy.”
Among the group are Brenna Ferrell of Ocean Springs, Lydia Hall of Madison, Nancy Hutson of Liberty, Anna Claire Kelley of Madison, Shelby Knighten of Gautier, Benjamin Logan of Sherman, Kaypounyers Maye of Gulfport, Katianne Middleton of Selma, Ala., Abigail Null of Corinth, Rachel Parbs of Southaven, Emily Reynolds of Brandon, Jenna Smiley of Meridian, Abigail Sudduth of Flowood, James Wheeler of St. Johns, Fla., and Kaye Whitfield of Birmingham, Ala.
Ten of the students are majoring in secondary English education, and five will study secondary mathematics education. The initial focus on these areas was designed to meet the demands of new Common Core State Standards being adopted in Mississippi. The program also hopes to help change the perception of teaching as a career choice for the best and brightest incoming freshmen.
“I believe better teachers will make for a better future,” said Logan, a mathematics education major and Tupelo High School graduate. “This is the opportunity of my dreams. I’ve been an Ole Miss Rebel my whole life and it’s awesome to be a trailblazer in the first class of this. I want to work hard for this. All I’ve done is click the ‘accept’ button, so right now I have to earn that.”
A collaboration with Mississippi State University, the METP was established with a grant from the Robert M. Hearin Support Foundation in Jackson. The program’s five-year goal is to recruit 160 college freshmen with outstanding academic records into education programs with full scholarships and more. Each university will produce 80 new teachers, all of whom make a five-year commitment to teach at a Mississippi public school after graduation.
“If I have to pick one thing, I hope we can help create a high standard for learning,” said Reynolds, an English education major and Northwest Rankin High School graduate. “I had very influential teachers in school. So If I can inspire students the way my teachers have inspired me, why wouldn’t I want to do that?”
Besides getting four years of full tuition, housing and funding for technology, professional development and study abroad, all METP students were accepted into UM’s Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College.
“We’ve maintained high standards for acceptance into this program,” said Ryan Niemeyer, the university’s director of METP. “It wasn’t enough to just have outstanding grades and ACT scores, and it wasn’t enough to just be passionate about education. I think this group has set a very high bar for the next group.”
While most education students begin teacher education coursework and field experiences during junior year, METP students will be immersed in educational issues and theories from their first semester with specialized seminars. Each semester, all METP students from both Ole Miss and MSU will come together for cross-campus learning activities at both campuses, allowing them to learn from faculty at both institutions.
“I’ve always wanted to be a teacher and it’s like this scholarship just fell out of nowhere,” said Maye, an English education major and graduate of Harrison Central High School. “I feel like those of us who want to be teachers are often overlooked for scholarship opportunities like this. A lot of people I went to school with want to be doctors and engineers, but when I told them about this, they started to think, maybe it would be nice to be a teacher and impact someone’s life.”
During orientation, the students were charged with upholding academic excellence at UM but also with gaining a deep knowledge of the complexities of the challenges facing public education not only in Mississippi but across the nation and abroad.
“This program started as a dream and represents a significant investment not only in these students but in teacher preparation in Mississippi,” said David Rock, dean of the UM School of Education. “These students were all top performers where they come from and they will be top performers here. But I can tell you this: Over the next four years, they’re going to work hard, they’re going to take advantage of every field experience possible (and) we’re going to challenge them to become the best possible educators in Mississippi.”