Search Results for: humanitarian

University Honors Thad Cochran with Mississippi Humanitarian Award

Former senator known as 'The Quiet Persuader' helped shape state as well as his alma mater

The University of Mississippi honored former U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran with its Mississippi Humanitarian Award Saturday at Commencement. Cochran, who was not able to attend, is shown speaking at Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter’s investiture in 2016. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Communications

OXFORD, Miss. – During its 165th Commencement on Saturday, the University of Mississippi honored former U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran with its Mississippi Humanitarian Award, which is presented only rarely to exceptional figures who have played a major role in shaping the state. 

Cochran, a UM alumnus, was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1972, and in 1978, he began a nearly 40-year career in the U.S. Senate – many of those years serving as the longtime chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, a powerful and coveted post on Capitol Hill.

Time magazine dubbed the Pontotoc native “The Quiet Persuader” for his polite manner and knack for consensus building. He retired April 1 as the 10th longest serving senator in American history. 

“The University of Mississippi is dear to me, and I am humbled by this award,” said the senator, who wasn’t able to attend the ceremony. “It was an honor to serve Mississippi in Washington, and I am proud of our state’s progress to increase opportunities for its citizens.

“I hope future generations will dedicate themselves to doing their part to make Mississippi the best place to live, work and enjoy life.”

Chancellor Jeffrey S. Vitter said he is proud the university had an opportunity to recognize Cochran for his tireless support of its research efforts. 

“Honoring Sen. Cochran with the Mississippi Humanitarian Award is a tremendous opportunity to recognize his outstanding contributions to our university, our state and our nation,” Vitter said. “I’m grateful for the senator’s longstanding efforts to support and grow the university, especially our research enterprise.

“He’s an excellent representative of an Ole Miss graduate and a true statesman.”

This is the fourth time the Mississippi Humanitarian Award has been presented since it was created in 2001. That year, it honored Jim and Sally McDonnell Barksdale. In 2003, former Gov. William Winter and his wife, Elise, were honored. The last winner of the award was Myrle Evers-Willams in 2013. 

Cochran majored in psychology and minored in political science at Ole Miss, and was the head cheerleader and a member of the Phi Kappa Phi honor society. After graduation, he served in the U.S. Navy and later returned to campus to earn his law degree.

In 1978, the young congressman won an election to replace longtime U.S. Sen. James O. Eastland, who had retired. While he served in the Senate, Cochran held many leadership roles and journalists praised him for his focus on getting things done, rather than playing politics.

His record of being re-elected to the Senate, six times, is a testament to the respect constituents had for him, Vitter said. 

Hurricane Katrina, often called the worst natural disaster in American history, hit in 2005 while Cochran was chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He was greatly affected by touring the devastation and vowed after seeing it to get whatever resources needed to help the Gulf Coast recover. 

He shaped the recovery of Mississippi and other devastated Gulf Coast states by using consensus building and bipartisanship to lead an initially hesitant Congress to offer an unprecedented $29 billion relief package. The funds included more than $5 billion in discretionary U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds for Mississippi to help devastated homeowners.

Those funds helped affected states recover from widespread damage to public and private property, the likes of which the country hadn’t seen before.

Vitter announced the award Saturday in the Grove, just steps from the Thad Cochran Research Center, home of the National Center for Natural Products Research. The senator played a central role in the late 1980s in securing federal funding for NCNPR, and his efforts helped strengthen the university as an international leader in natural products research.

Cochran also has been a strong advocate for numerous other campus research programs, which address many national needs, especially in national defense and agriculture. 

Those programs have helped UM become more competitive in securing research funding and have helped it earn the designation of being a Carnegie R1 Highest Research Activity institution, the highest ranking a university can attain in the Carnegie classification.

It was also announced that the former senator is donating his papers to the university’s Modern Political Archives. Ole Miss is “deeply honored” to receive such an important collection, Vitter said. 

“These records not only document his years of service representing Mississippi in the U.S. House and Senate, they will also offer future researchers insight into matters of local, state and national significance,” Vitter said. 

Cochran’s impressive legacy includes giving Ole Miss students countless opportunities, and he has poised the state for a bright future, the chancellor said. 

“Although he retired in April of this year, his legacy will continue to shape the state of Mississippi for a long time to come,” Vitter said. “Sen. Cochran has been a great champion for the University of Mississippi. 

“We can say without hesitation that he has been one of the key figures in moving Ole Miss from the small stage to the ‘big time’ in terms of our research enterprise and the educational offerings we can provide.”

Nominations Accepted for Gregory Gomez IV Humanitarian Service Award

Mechanical engineering alumnus died in a bus accident in Peru

UM 2008 alumnus Gregory Gomez IV was serving on a mission trip in Peru when killed in a bus accident. Submitted photo

A University of Mississippi School of Engineering alumnus, whose life ended tragically while serving on a South American mission trip, is being remembered with a newly created award.

The Gregory Gomez IV Humanitarian Service Award was created in 2017 to honor the memory of Gomez (BSME 08), who traveled to Peru in summer 2008 to serve with the International Mission Board. He was working to map routes to rural areas when he died in a bus accident. This award honors Gomez’s memory and seeks to identify other members of the Ole Miss Engineering family who have demonstrated extraordinary service somewhere in the world. 
Nominations can be sent to or mailed to School of Engineering, Brevard Hall, Room 229, University, MS 38677. Please include contact information and a paragraph to explain your nomination.

Crossing the River Together: A UM Humanitarian Project

Engineering students and faculty work together to provide infrastructure for West African villages

Workers drill a borehole with a rig and drilling mud as Zack Lepchitz and Dillon Hall examine soil cuttings.

Workers drill a borehole with a rig and drilling mud as Zack Lepchitz and Dillon Hall examine soil cuttings.

OXFORD, Miss. – In Africa, there is a saying: “Cross the river in a crowd and the crocodile won’t eat you.” Or, in the words of the Dalai Lama, “Universal humanitarianism is essential to solve global problems.”

Western visitors to the low, sandy terrain of the West African nation of Togo find a world far different than where they live. It is a world where locals drink polluted water from the same open source. A world where resources are scarce and where health care and education are not always options. A world unlike this one in many ways but connected through its people and their desire for a stronger community.

A team of faculty members and students at the University of Mississippi, all members of the UM chapter of Engineers Without Borders, is working to help residents of one village strengthen their community. Among them is Cristiane Surbeck, an associate professor of civil engineering who is committed to “actually doing” good for this community to make a major impact on the people who live within it.

“I hope to help the people of Togo with projects that require engineering labor and teach UM students how to be engineers,” Surbeck said.

Engineers Without Borders is an organization of engineering professionals, academics and students who are dedicated to the empowerment of impoverished communities abroad. They travel to places such as Togo, bringing with them resources that strengthen and encourage the communities they adopt.

These resources include students and faculty educated in engineering, as well as manpower and useful tools for building.

In the last four years, members of the UM chapter have dedicated themselves to helping the small village of Hedome.

The children of Hedome aspire to be doctors and layers and engineers; some even hope to be congressmen. Learning, however, was difficult without a school.

In 2012, the UM chapter of Engineers Without Borders recognized the community’s need for a place of learning, where the children of Togo could be encouraged to expand their education. The chapter collectively developed plans for an infrastructure and raised funds to start work.

After much hard work, a schoolhouse for the children of Hedome village was completed. The school has been the group’s greatest accomplishment thus far, Surbeck said.

Vera Gardner, a senior mechanical engineering major from Memphis, Tennessee, agreed.

“When we saw the students attending classes and learning in their new schoolhouse, it showed that the community’s efforts and the UM-EWB chapter’s work was being used for its intended use and a good cause,” he said. “Everyone’s hard work paid off.”

With this great accomplishment, the chapter members have plowed forward into their next project, the installation of a deep water well in the village of Akoumape. The UM chapter began planning the project in January 2016, and it remains in development.

This deep water well will replace the shallow well that the village has been using. A deeper well means cleaner water both for the residents and for a local children’s hospital in the village. This installation will mean all-around better health and should help to energize the Togo community.

“When we complete the job, I can see the faces of the people we are helping.” said Zack Lepchitz, a UM graduate student in geological engineering who is involved with the developing construction projects in Togo.

Students involved with the chapter’s trip to Togo “are learning the technical and social skills necessary to complete a construction project to the client’s satisfaction,” Surbeck said.

Humanitarians at Heart

Warners designate gifts for Alumni Association and undergraduate and medical scholarships

Dr. Bob and Mary Ellen Warner

Dr. Bob and Mary Ellen Warner

OXFORD, Miss. – Dr. Bob and Mary Ellen Warner always manage to find a way to serve others, even on vacation.

“Herb, Dixie, Mary Ellen and I had a little routine,” Bob Warner said, referring to Herb Dewees, former Ole Miss Alumni Association executive director, and his wife, Dixie. In the mid-1990s, the couples frequently traveled together to northern Europe on Alumni Association-sponsored trips.

“When we got to a new hotel, we’d help everyone with their luggage and some Ole Miss alumni, particularly the ladies, had several bags, to say the least. So we would unload the luggage and get everyone settled and then sneak away to get a pizza wherever we were in the world.”

The Warners say it’s the experiences they had and relationships they built through the Alumni Association that inspired them to create the University of Mississippi Life Member Endowment with a $1 million planned gift.

“Bob and Mary Ellen are two of the kindest, most genuine people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing,” said Sheila Dossett, interim executive director of alumni affairs. “We greatly appreciate their involvement in the Alumni Association through the years and their amazing generosity.”

Bob Warner received a biology degree from Ole Miss in 1979 and his medical degree four years later from the UM School of Medicine.

A general, thoracic, vascular surgeon at Arkansas Methodist Medical Center in Paragould, Arkansas, he has worked in northeast Arkansas for more than 25 years. He became the first surgeon in his region to perform minimally invasive abdominal aneurysm repairs, among other innovative vascular procedures.

“Our experiences with the Alumni Association have made us realize that the university has a depth and a breadth that reaches, really, across the world,” he said. “I look at my life and say, ‘What’s made my life where I can do some of the things I’ve done and have some success at it?’ and Ole Miss is just in the forefront of my mind.

“So we asked ourselves, ‘What can we do to be sure other people have that same opportunity?’ And I think it’s the idea that you want to give back so other people can have the same experiences.”

Those experiences include the career paths Bob and Mary Ellen, a 1979 nursing graduate, chose to pursue – professions in which the top priority is caring for others. In fact, they met as students at the UM Medical Center, where Mary Ellen was a cardiac nurse and Bob was a cardiovascular surgery resident.

In an effort to help others have a similar UMMC opportunity, the Warners have established the Dr. and Mrs. Robert L. Warner Jr. University Medical Center Scholarship Endowment in addition to their designated gift to the Alumni Association. This gift, valued at $700,000, will support a medical student for up to three years and a nursing student for up to four years.

“We are so grateful to the Warners for recognizing that supporting our students is an investment in the health of generations to come,” said Dr. LouAnn Woodward, vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine. “We are fortunate to have alumni like these who care deeply about the University of Mississippi Medical Center.”

In addition to the Warners’ gifts to UMMC and the Alumni Association, they have also designated $400,000 to establish the Dr. and Mrs. Robert L. Warner Jr. Scholarship Endowment, which will benefit Ole Miss students from Hinds County, Mary Ellen’s home, and from Hancock and Harrison counties, where Bob was born and raised.

After graduating from medical school and getting married, Bob considered returning home to Bay St. Louis to begin his career, but the opportunity wasn’t there. Instead, the Warners established a cardiac surgery practice in Jonesboro, Arkansas, just two hours from their beloved Ole Miss.

“Everybody in my family got their college degree from here: my mom, my dad, my uncle, my aunt, my cousins, their kids… so my first time at Ole Miss was when I was 2 or 3 years old because my dad had been in the Army and came back here to go to the School of Engineering. My mother had already graduated from here, so my first visit to Ole Miss was as a toddler,” Bob said. “I’ve been here since I was born really.”

Mary Ellen’s ties to the university are equally strong. Her late father, Dr. José Bebin, served UMMC as a professor of pathology, and her sister, Dr. Martina Bickley, is a pediatric neurologist who earned her medical degree there. Mary Ellen’s mother, Patricia, was instrumental in procuring many pieces of art for the UMMC library.

Bob says his interest in serving others is inherited from his parents: “My mother was a school teacher; my father was an engineer. I wouldn’t say we were poor … I would say they worked hard, and a lot of times they put my needs ahead of everybody else’s. I think that taught me that you have to be a little bit generous. They set a good example about that.”

Bob’s parents are graduates of Ole Miss and his father, who has a deep appreciation for the School of Engineering, also has made a gift to the UM Foundation as a tribute to the education he received.

The Warners are, by nature, humanitarians, finding satisfaction in improving the lives of others, both at home and abroad. Bob recently traveled to northwest India, where he joined a team of 42 medical professionals tasked with immunizing children in the region. Over a three-day period, various teams immunized about 75 million kids.

“The main thing you’re doing is giving support to the Indian public health workers to let them know that somebody else in the world cares about what they’re doing,” Bob said, adding that they have taken similar medical mission trips to Romania and Burma.

After moving to Jonesboro, Mary Ellen worked part time as an intensive care nurse and taught nursing at Arkansas State University while Bob worked as a cardiac surgeon. They also are among the original volunteers for a church-associated health clinic in Jonesboro.

“We have our own little medical practice,” Bob said. “We see patients of all kinds at that charity clinic, and we’ve been doing it for 20 years.”

Mary Ellen retired from the ICU and from teaching, but she continues to volunteer at the clinic. She has served as a board member on the Hispanic Community Service Inc., a nonprofit organization that helps Hispanic immigrants become self-sustaining in the United States. In this capacity, she has most recently poured her heart into one particular family.

“I’m going to tell you more than she would,” Bob said. “So this is a family that had been separated from their mother and some of the siblings for 13 years and through this incredible effort …”

“It took three years,” Mary Ellen said.

“We worked with an immigration attorney in Memphis, and Mary Ellen filled out all the paperwork and helped guide them along,” Bob continued. “The dad became a citizen (he was already here on a visa) and by him becoming legal, the whole family got to be legal and was able to reunite.”

“Well, I was just determined; I wasn’t going to take ‘no’ for an answer,” Mary Ellen said. “It was just a long, long journey and for someone who doesn’t really understand the path and who can’t communicate on that level, it can be too challenging.

“I was just their mentor. The greatest gift is to see them together with their mother.”

The Warners’ planned gift gives them membership in the 1848 Society, named for the year the university opened to its first students. The society recognizes generous donors who provide for the university through planned and deferred gifts.

For more information, interested individuals can call the UM Foundation at 800-340-9542 or 662-915-5944, or visit

Clarion-Ledger Blog: Myrlie Evers receives Humanitarian Award from Ole Miss — nearly 60 years after law school turned her husband away

Myrlie Evers-Williams today (May 11) became the first person in a decade honored with a Humanitarian Award by the University of Mississippi — the same institution that turned away her late husband from entering law school.

The widow of slain Mississippi NAACP leader Medgar Evers was surprised with the award after delivering the university’s 160th commencement address this morning to Ole Miss graduates.

The award has only been bestowed twice before. In 2001, Ole Miss honored Jim and Sally Barksdale. Two years later, William and Elise Winter also received the award.

Read more.

Rusovich Family Bolsters UM Arabic Program

Gift honors son's growth while studying in Middle East, seeks to empower more students

Marilyn (left), Greg, Suzanne and Collin Rusovich visit with Linda Spargo, special projects coordinator for the UM Chancellor’s Office. Marilyn Rusovich is Greg’s mother. The family is supporting the university’s Arabic program because of the outstanding experiences Collin enjoys as an Arabic major at Ole Miss. UM photo by Bill Dabney

OXFORD, Miss. – University of Mississippi student Colin Rusovich was studying abroad in the Middle Eastern country of Jordan when he embarked on a shopping excursion for a desk, negotiated the purchase and even caught a ride on the back of an old truck delivering his furniture.

A world away from his roots in New Orleans, Rusovich felt completely at ease studying and living in Jordan, thanks in part to the Arabic Language Program in the UM Department of Modern Languages. In fact, he said, “Step by step, I plan to continue exploring new cultures and places in the Middle East.”

To celebrate their son’s career preparation and personal development that took place at the university, parents Suzanne and Greg Rusovich committed $50,000 to create the Rusovich Family Arabic Fund, providing programmatic and study-abroad resources to the Arabic program, which has applied for Flagship status.

In fact, the family’s gift was noted in the university’s application to the U.S. State Department to reflect the support the program enjoys. The university is already home to a Chinese Language Flagship Program.

“This generous gift is meaningful to family members because of Greg’s profession and because of the fire that was sparked in Colin; they are giving to a program that clearly connects the Arabic language and their work in the Middle East,” said Linda Spargo, special projects coordinator on UM Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter’s staff.

Spargo worked closely with Colin Rusovich and his parents and became familiar with Greg Rusovich’s career as CEO of Transoceanic Development LLC, known for its delivery of vital cargo worldwide for humanitarian relief, defense and peacekeeping missions, and reconstruction projects.

“Colin has a true love for the Arabic culture and language, and he has been focused on becoming fluent in Arabic, along with familiarity with Russian,” she said. “The Rusovich gift provided a giant leap forward in the university’s efforts to gain a flagship program in Arabic.”

Arabic is a difficult language, used in more than 20 countries. With intensified American military and political focus on the Middle East, the U.S. State Department has named Arabic a “critical language.” There is a high demand for Arabic-speaking professionals in government, the private sector and nonprofit organizations.

The Rusoviches’ support will assist student recruitment to the Arabic program, said Dan O’Sullivan, UM chair of modern languages.

“The Department of Modern Languages and, more specifically, the Arabic faculty, are grateful to the Rusovich family for their generous support of the Intensive Arabic Program,” he said. “Thanks to them, we will be able to recruit the very best students into the program, and, in turn, these students will leave the University of Mississippi speaking superior-level Arabic.

“Speaking Arabic opens many doors after graduation in education, government and international business. Through our graduates, the University of Mississippi can play a role in promoting peace in these other countries. We are so very proud of our Arabic faculty and students.”

The fact that Ole Miss sends students to Jordan for language immersion impressed Colin Rusovich, who is majoring in Arabic and minoring in Russian, after beginning Arabic classes at Tulane University as a high school student.

“Not a lot of schools send their students there,” he observed. “It is fascinating; people don’t understand what a gem Jordan is. The climate toward Americans is positive. It was a beautiful experience, and I particularly enjoyed the mountainous areas where the families were not integrated into city life.”

Greg Rusovich said his son has many options available, from pursuing policy work in Washington, D.C., to enrolling in graduate school or working for Transoceanic Development.        

“It’s relatively unique to have an American in the Middle East who speaks Arabic, and the key to building relationships there is a knowledge of the language paired with understanding cultural nuances,” he said. “Colin has both of those, and he possesses great people skills.”

Greg Rusovich said he and his family were inspired to provide resources to the Arabic program because of the growth and success his son experienced.

“He went to college and came back a different person. My son will make a difference in the world. We are supportive of Ole Miss and always will be.”

Suzanne Rusovich echoed the sentiment, saying, “We have enormous gratitude for Ole Miss, and it’s important to us to help other students who will come through this program; we want to help empower the program to be the best it can be.

“Ole Miss provides an unbelievable network of support in students’ journeys. The faculty and staff steer them straight; sometimes it’s lifesaving and remarkable. And it’s done so brilliantly and kindly. This university really is a family.”

Spargo said she is eager to see what the future holds for Colin Rusovich.

“Colin is heading into the world full of enthusiasm, confidence and networking,” she said. “He can solve problems, and he is very motivated to get involved with the people and culture of the Middle East.

“I look forward to seeing him succeed professionally and using the Arabic language in his endeavors.”    

For more information on supporting the Arabic Language Program, contact Denson Hollis, executive director of development, at or 662-915-5092. Gifts can be made online at

Cochran’s Papers Shine Light on Nation’s Major Issues

Collection includes correspondence, documents, photographs, recordings, scrapbooks and memorabilia

Former U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran is donating his papers to the UM Modern Political Archives. Cochran, an alumnus and supporter of the university, is shown speaking at Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter’s investiture in 2016. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Communications

OXFORD, Miss. – Former U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran’s papers will be donated to the University of Mississippi, providing 3,500 linear feet of documents and nearly 6 terabytes of digital files that offer insight into some of the nation’s most significant political events over the past 45 years.

Cochran, a UM alumnus, was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1972, and in 1978, the young congressman won an election to replace longtime U.S. Sen. James O. Eastland, who had retired. This election marked the start of a nearly 40-year career in the U.S. Senate, during which Cochran distinguished himself as chairman of both the Senate Agriculture Committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee, one of the most influential and powerful posts on Capitol Hill.

Time magazine dubbed him the “Quiet Persuader” for his polite manner and knack for consensus building. He retired April 1 as the 10th-longest-serving senator in American history.

“The people of Mississippi gave me the honor of representing them in Washington, and I tried to do my best to make decisions that were in the best interests of Mississippi and the nation,” Cochran said. “I hope this archival material will reflect those efforts.”

Cochran majored in psychology and minored in political science at Ole Miss, and was the head cheerleader and a member of the Phi Kappa Phi honor society. After graduation, he served in the U.S. Navy and later returned to campus to earn his law degree and serve as editor of the Mississippi Law Journal.

While he served in the U.S. Senate, Cochran held many leadership roles, and journalists praised him for his focus on getting things done, rather than playing politics.

“These records not only document his years of service representing Mississippi in the U.S. House and Senate, they will also offer future researchers insight into matters of local, state and national significance,” Chancellor Jeffrey S. Vitter said.

Leigh McWhite, UM political papers archivist and associate professor, said the senator’s papers would shine light on subjects ranging from wildlife conservation to the return of veterans from the Gulf Wars and also the recovery of the Mississippi Gulf Coast from Hurricane Katrina.

The collection includes correspondence, documents, publications, photographs, recordings, scrapbooks and memorabilia, as well as electronic records.

“The Modern Political Archives is honored to be the steward of the Thad Cochran Collection,” McWhite said. “With this donation, Sen. Cochran is preserving an important historical resource on the last quarter of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st. The University of Mississippi is grateful for this gift, and future researchers will be as well.”

The Modern Political Archives is a unit of the UM Libraries’ Department of Archives & Special Collections. Its holdings include the records of Mississippi’s congressional delegation, members of the state Legislature, governors, and federal and state judges. It includes the papers of former Sen. Trent Lott, Sen. James O. Eastland, former U.S. Rep. Jamie Whitten and current U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker. It is a nonpartisan entity and welcomes researchers of all ages and interests.

Congressional collections are an obvious resource for biographers examining the life and career of important political figures. However, most researchers who study these records are more interested in examining specific historical topics.

McWhite said the scope of subject matter in congressional collections is almost unbelievably immense when one considers all the ways in which modern government permeates society through regulations, legislation, investigation and appropriation spending.

“At the same time, these collections allow researchers to examine information on the local scale of Mississippi communities and to study the grassroots opinions of constituents on all manner of subjects,” McWhite said.

Cochran was honored at Commencement in May with UM’s Mississippi Humanitarian Award, which is presented only rarely to exceptional figures who have played a major role in shaping the state. He is the fourth recipient of the award since its creation in 2001.

The university also plans to honor Cochran in November with an event that will raise funds for law school scholarships and faculty support, and the proceeds will also benefit the effort to archive the senator’s papers. For more information about the event, contact Suzette Matthews at or 601-937-1497.

The law school is looking forward to the event, said Susan Duncan, dean of the School of Law.

“Sen. Thad Cochran is one of our most esteemed alumni, and we are so proud of the work he has done for the state of Mississippi,” Duncan said. “We are very excited to honor him this fall and highlight all of his accomplishments.”

Walter Isaacson Urges UM Grads to Embrace Creativity, Collaboration

Renowned journalist and biographer delivers Commencement address to more than 15,000 in Grove

Walter Isaacson makes a point during his Commencement address Saturday morning at the University of Mississippi. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Communications

OXFORD, Miss. – Under powder blues skies Saturday in the Grove, Walter Isaacson stressed to the University of Mississippi’s graduating class that being smart is only part of success, and that life’s greatest achievements come from collaborating to connect the arts and sciences with humanities and engineering.

Isaacson, acclaimed biographer, professor and historian who also was head of both CNN and Time magazine, spoke to the graduating class of more than 5,300, including more than 1,300 August degree candidates and nearly 700 who finished in December. 

His talk about the need to surround oneself with people from many backgrounds to forge innovation also was peppered with the refrain of “what we forgot to tell you” to impart wisdom he’s acquired since he graduated.

“You are hereby certified by this university as being very smart,” Isaacson said. “That’s the good news. The bad news is that you’re about to find out that smart people are a dime a dozen.

“Here’s what we forgot to tell you. Smart people often don’t amount to much. What really matters is being imaginative, being creative and being innovative and most important of all, just being good.” 

A crowd of more than 15,000 people gathered in the Grove to hear Isaacson, a professor of history at Tulane University in New Orleans, where he grew up. He’s a graduate of Harvard College and also Pembroke College of Oxford University in Oxford, England, where he was a Rhodes scholar.

He began his career at The Sunday Times of London and then the New Orleans Times-Picayune. He joined Time in 1978, working as a political correspondent, national editor and editor of digital media before becoming the magazine’s editor in 1996. In 2001, he became chairman and CEO of CNN, and then president and CEO of the Aspen Institute in 2003.

Besides having headed two of the world’s most important media organizations, Isaacson is a prolific biographer and nonfiction writer. He is the author of the best-seller “Steve Jobs” in 2011, as well as biographies of Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Henry Kissinger.

His most recent work, “Leonardo da Vinci” (Simon & Schuster), released in October, offers new discoveries about the artist’s life and work, weaving a narrative that connects his art to his science.

He cited lessons from the figures he’s written about; most prominently that that they all found ways to innovate, not only through a tireless curiosity, but through bridging sciences, humanities and the arts.

Society has forgotten to tell students that creativity comes from working across disciplines, Isaacson said.

Loving everything from art and anatomy to geology and zoology and understanding the patterns across different disciplines of arts, sciences, humanities, social sciences and engineering just as da Vinci did is critical, he said.

The 165th Commencement ceremonies at the University of Mississippi honored a graduating class of more than 5,300, including more than 1,300 August degree candidates and nearly 700 who finished in December. More than 15,000 people gathered in the Grove for the main ceremony. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Communications

The late Steve Jobs, visionary leader of Apple, always ended his project launch presentations with slides of street signs showing the intersections of the liberal arts with technology, or the humanities with engineering. He said at those intersections is where creativity occurs.

“Steve Jobs made the iPod, which was a combination of art, design, beauty and engineering,” Isaacson said. “Whatever they were preaching about knowing STEM subjects, Steve also knew the true essence of creativity, which is that beauty matters.”

Passionate curiosity is a common trait of historical figures such as Jobs, da Vinci and others he’s written about, Isaacson said.

Both Einstein and Da Vinci, some 400 years apart, wrote the same simple question in their notebooks: “Why is the sky blue?” They wondered about it and did experiments to try to figure it out. They both were driven purely out of a sense of wonder.

“That’s what your education is about,” Isaacson said. “It is always remaining like a student, staring at the cosmos and the creation into which we were blessed and graced to live and having that childlike sense of wonder.”

Working with others, especially from diverse groups, is also important. He noted that for many, the university is the most diverse place they’ve ever been. People from many countries and economic backgrounds live and attend classes together, all learning ideas from across the academic spectrum.

He urged students to go about the rest of their lives seeking out opinions and ideas of others who aren’t like them.

“We told you this was a very exclusive place and you got into more and more and more exclusive realms,” Isaacson said. “What we forgot to tell you is it not about exclusivity in the real world. It is about inclusivity. It is about how many people you bring together.”

Graduates are also often told it’s time to “grow up” when they leave college. Not so, Isaacson said. The central point of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” was the benediction he gave the Commencement crowd.

“I want to give you that benediction today and I want you to do it right with humility and do good with wonder and curiosity at all times,” Isaacson said. “May you stay forever young.”

UM Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter said it is an honor to welcome Isaacson, who played a major role in the success of the university’s inaugural Tech Summit in 2016, back to campus on such an important day.

Vitter, presiding over his third Ole Miss Commencement, stood before the graduates and paused to snap a panoramic photo of the crowd, which he posted to his Twitter account. It’s a tradition he’s carried on each year since 2016.

He noted the importance of the day to the graduates and wished them well in their future endeavors.

“Today you complete your work as students at the university – you graduate,” Vitter said. “You also begin the next chapter in your lives – you commence. Our collective prayer for each of you is a life filled with joy, good health, successful, meaningful careers and peace.”

The university’s Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College conducted its commissioning ceremony Friday afternoon, and recipients of doctoral degrees were honored at a hooding ceremony that evening, both in the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts.

During Saturday’s ceremony, Ann Monroe, assistant dean and associate professor of education, was introduced as the 2018 recipient of the Elsie M. Hood Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award, the university’s highest campuswide honor for teaching.

Marc Slattery, professor of biomolecular sciences in the School of Pharmacy and research professor in the Research Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences, was named the recipient of the university’s 11th Distinguished Research and Creative Achievement Award.

Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter (center, in red) leads administrators and the crowd in applause of Walter Isaacson (left center) after the acclaimed journalist and biographer delivered the university’s Commencement address Saturday in the Grove. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Communications

The university also recognized the winners of this year’s Frist Student Service Awards: Kerri Scott, instructional associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry and associate director of the university’s forensic chemistry program; Leslie Banahan, assistant vice chancellor for student affairs; and Ryan Upshaw, assistant dean for student services in the School of Engineering.

The university also honored former U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran with its Mississippi Humanitarian Award, which is presented only rarely to exceptional figures who have shaped the state. Vitter noted that Cochran, who was unable to attend the ceremony, played a vital role in supporting the university’s research venture and also championed many programs that have improved life for Mississippians.

Bobby Bailess, of Vicksburg, president of the Ole Miss Alumni Association, welcomed the graduates as alumni.

“You will soon know that being an alumnus means being a member of the Ole Miss family,” Bailess said. “This is not just a place where you earned a degree.”

Guy Fortenberry Thornton, UM senior class president, talked about the senior class project, which raised $27,000 for the William Magee Center for Wellness Education as a defining experience for his time at Ole Miss.

He also challenged his fellow graduates to reflect on their own time on campus as they age. He told them that over the years, the wrinkles will come, but it’s nothing to worry about.

“In the wise words of Jimmy Buffet, the singer and songwriter, who once said, ‘Wrinkles will only go where the smiles have once been,’ I know I will have many of these wrinkles from all of the good times and the smiles I’ve had with all of you these past four years,” Thornton said.

3 Alumni Honored with Engineering Awards

Albert Hilliard, Jeff Rish III and Catherine Grace Norris received recognition at awards banquet

Albert L. Hilliard (left) accepts the 2018 Engineer of Distinction award from UM School of Engineering Dean Alex Cheng. Photo by Clay Cavett/UM Alumni Affairs

Three University of Mississippi School of Engineering alumni were honored for their hard work, service and humanitarianism during the annual engineering awards banquet in April.

Albert L. Hilliard, IT/OT services program manager at ExxonMobil, was presented the Engineer of Distinction Award. Jeff W. Rish III, retired from federal service as technical program manager at the U.S. Naval Surface Warfare Center, received the Engineer of Service Award. The Gregory Gomez IV Humanitarian Service Award went to Catherine Grace Norris, a 2017 graduate who works as a Peace Corps volunteer.

“Once a year, we have this warm gathering to celebrate the accomplishment of our students, alumni and faculty,” said Dean Alex Cheng. “I am pleased that over and over again we see the highest level of creativity and service demonstrated by this group. This is a wonderful and proud Ole Miss family.”

The recipients reflected upon their honor.

“I was surprised since I didn’t know I was even being considered,” said Hilliard, who is responsible for digitally transforming ExxonMobil’s industrial IT environments around the world. “I felt so honored to be included in such a distinguished group of University of Mississippi alumni engineers. This is a dream come true.”

The Hernando native, who earned his bachelor’s degree in computer science from the university 35 years ago, said it is very gratifying to be recognized by the school that launched him on his successful path as a computer scientist/engineer.

Jeff Rish III (center) receives the 2018 Engineer of Service award from Dean Cheng (right) and is congratulated by David Carroll, 2016 Engineer of Service recipient. Photo by Clay Cavett/UM Alumni Affair

“I grew up poor in rural Mississippi and was a first-generation college student,” Hilliard said. “I entered the University of Mississippi with raw talents/skills, strong family support and dreams of making a difference. The University of Mississippi helped mold me into a computer scientist, helped me to focus and challenged me to make a difference as a computer scientist and responsible citizen.”

Hilliard also has a master’s degree in computer science from the University of Dayton and an Executive MBA from Baylor University. His wife, Harriet, earned her bachelor’s degree from Ole Miss and her medical degree from the University of Mississippi Medical Center. The couple has two sons.

Rish said he was gratified to learn that he had been selected to receive the Engineer of Service Award. He was a member of the UM Engineering Advisory Board from 2004 to 2014, and interacted with the school on a number of topics and issues during that time.

“This award is personally meaningful to me because it says I impacted leadership within the School of Engineering, and the EAB believes that my involvement impacted the school in a positive way,” Rish said.

Rish earned bachelor’s degrees in both civil and mechanical engineering, a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in engineering science from the university. A Pontotoc native, Rish is a member of the adjunct faculty at Florida State University’s Panama City campus, where he teaches Engineering Thermodynamics. He has been teaching this undergraduate course there since 2005.

He and his wife, Patricia (or “Patti”), reside in Lynn Haven, Florida, but maintain strong ties to his alma mater and Mississippi roots.

A 2017 general engineering graduate, Norris joined the Peace Corps and works in Zambia. Her work has involved meeting with the Japan International Cooperation Agency, a rice nongovernmental organization, to discuss hosting a workshop in Luapula Province. She frequently hosts demonstrations on how to make compost fertilizer and smaller projects involving animal husbandry, women’s empowerment and hydrogeology.

Like Hilliard, Norris said she was surprised by the award.

“I have been living very disconnected from the U.S. and didn’t know I was eligible for such an award,” she said. “I am both humbled and elated to accept this reward. Peace Corps has been an idea of mine for almost 10 years, and thanks to the engineering school and especially Ms. Hank (Ducey), I’ve gotten to achieve something I feel is truly great. 

Catherine Grace Norris, a Peace Corps volunteer in Zimbabwe, was presented the 2018 Greg Gomez IV Humanitarian Award in absentia. Hank Ducey, administrative assistant in the engineering school, accepted the award on Norris’ behalf. Photo by Clay Cavett/UM Alumni Affairs

“I have always been heavily involved in volunteer work, and being a Peace Corps volunteer, riding on buses, in the backs of cars, down dangerous roads, has become a way of life. Hearing about Gomez and how his story and passions are being honored is beautiful. … He has set a great example, and I hope fellow Ole Miss students and alumni can follow it.”

 Also honored at the awards banquet were Lei Cao, Outstanding Faculty of the Year; Alex Yakovlev, Senior Faculty Research Award; Esteban Urena-Benavides, Junior Faculty Research Award; Adam Smith, Faculty Teaching Award; Hunain Alkhateb, Faculty Service Award; and Aubrey Bolen, Staff Award. The school also honored Harleigh Huggins with the Mississippi Engineering Society Outstanding Senior Award.

Five students received the Engineering Outstanding Senior Award. They are Huggins (mechanical engineering), David Rozier (chemical engineering), Colbert Lehr (electrical engineering), Zach Mitchell (general engineering) and William Garrett (mechanical engineering). The David Arnold Engineering Award was presented to Colbert Lehr. Farzin Rahmani (chemical engineering) and Amrit Kharel (electrical engineering) received Graduate Achievement awards, and 15 engineering students received the Taylor Medal, the university’s most coveted honor.



‘Leadership and Professionalism’ Course Enhances Students’ Career Skills

Fall offering features guest speakers, out-of-classroom activities

Students in Senior Leadership Class always enjoy a variety of activities, including trips away from campus. (Submitted photo)

Companies often use a transcript as validation of “aptitude” but then use an interview to evaluate “attitude.” How does an engineering school teach attitude to the millennial generation? Students born between the early ’80s and 2000 may have very different views on cultural identity, politics, workplace expectations and technology. For the University of Mississippi School of Engineering, the attitude advantage continues to be delivered through the ENGR 400 “Leadership and Professionalism” course.

Forty-five students come to class each Friday in the fall, anxious to hear words of wisdom from a variety of guest speakers. Every semester offers a different lineup of speakers, panel discussions, events and activities.

“The class this year has been very enriching,” said David Phelts, a senior geological engineering major from Atlanta, Georgia. “Being able to listen and learn from many successful alumni and leaders in the community is something I would never have been able to get from a textbook. I’m confident I will be able to apply the valuable lessons learned from great guest speakers we’ve had this fall as I make my transition to the professional world.”

From military leadership philosophy to corporate engineering, entrepreneurial startups and success stories to U.S. congressional leadership, municipal leadership, international humanitarian leadership, from young alumni to seasoned professionals, and everything in between, students gain a new attitude about leadership and professionalism through this course. Co-taught by Dean Alex Cheng and Assistant Dean Marni Kendricks, students are challenged to define their professional goals and leadership aspirations by the end of the semester.

Reading John Maxwell’s “The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader,” students have the opportunity to assess these qualities in their lives and improve themselves. Networking with the Engineering Advisory Board, participating in the Fall Career Fair and a team-building afternoon at the Rebel Challenge Course, attending business etiquette luncheons, giving 60-second impromptu elevator pitches, and practicing mock interviews and business correspondence are all part of their professional development, one of the major goals of the course.

Technical skills, soft skills and leadership skills are distinct terms used in the workplace. It is assumed that all engineers have the first skill set accomplished by the time they graduate.

“Having the benefit of an engineering school in the middle of a liberal arts university where social life is such a significant part of the campus, we believe soft skills naturally develop to some extent,” Kendricks said. “Leadership skills can always be enhanced, but for 21- to 22-year-olds, hearing heart-to-heart words of wisdom and encouragement on a weekly basis from a wide variety of leaders is like signing up for a class but receiving a bar of 24 carat gold … far better than just an A.”

If interested in speaking to this class, please contact Marni Kendricks,