$60 Million Gift Launched Croft Institute onto Global Stage

Donation from Joseph C. Bancroft Charitable and Educational Fund endowed institute 20 years ago

Before the Croft Institute for International Studies called the ‘Y’ Building, or the old chapel, home, the building, constructed in 1853, underwent about a $3.5 million renovation funded by the Joseph C. Bancroft Charitable and Educational Fund. In June 1998, the Croft board of directors toured the ongoing renovations with Chancellor Robert Khayat (third from left), Provost Carolyn Staton (right) and others. Submitted photo

OXFORD, Miss. – The Croft Institute for International Studies celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, but before that first cohort entered in August 1998, the institute’s story began with a man walking into an office.

The man was Gerald M. Abdalla, CEO and president of Croft LLC and chairman of the Joseph C. Bancroft Charitable and Educational Fund. The office, located in the Lyceum at the University of Mississippi, was occupied by then-Chancellor Robert Khayat.

A native of McComb, Abdalla had graduated from the UM School of Law in 1973 (where Khayat was a professor of his), earned a master’s in taxation from New York University and joined Croft Metals as corporate counsel after five years in private practice. He had been promoted to lead the McComb-based company, founded by Joseph C. Bancroft, in 1996.

Bancroft died in March 1996, but his will set up the fund, with an eye toward funding educational pursuits. And Abdalla had an idea for using some of the money, so he called his former professor, set up a meeting and soon walked into Khayat’s office in September 1996.

“He came in and we had a little conversation preceding ‘the conversation,’ and I said, ‘Well, Jerry, what can I do for you?'” Khayat recalled.

I want to give Ole Miss some money, Khayat remembered Abdalla saying.

Good, because we need it, Khayat replied.

I want to give $60 million.

What did you say? Khayat asked.

$60 million.

“It got very quiet for a moment because I’d never heard of that before – or since,” Khayat said. “I said, ‘What would you like us to do with that money?’ He said, ‘What do you want to do with it?'”

Abdalla said when he first met with Khayat, he mentioned establishing an institute incorporating majors he had studied, such as accounting, law and taxation. After he met more with Khayat, Associate Provost Carolyn Ellis Staton and other university officials, the decision was made to use the $60 million for an international studies program.

“That was foreign to me, but as far as myself and the other members of the board, we figured if that’s what the university wanted, and they were going to be there to be involved in it, we’d go ahead and do that one,” Abdalla said. “That’s what we did.”

About a year later, on Sept. 18, 1997, after negotiations and drawing up contracts, the $60 million gift – largest in the university’s history – was publicly announced, with Khayat stating the gift would create a premier international studies institute, the Croft Institute for International Studies.

“The University of Mississippi and the state of Mississippi will be forever changed by the work of the Croft Institute,” Khayat said during a press conference announcing the gift.

Twenty years later, no one can argue with the foresight of that statement. Since the institute’s inception in 1998, the program has sent its graduates out into the world, placing both UM and its graduates on the global stage.

“We have just completed a survey of our alumni, and it shows that a Croft degree opens doors to a broad range of exciting jobs all over the world,” said Oliver Dinius, Croft executive director and an associate professor of history. “This confirms that the original vision for the Croft Institute was right on target, and it is rewarding to hear directly from graduates of Croft how well its educational model prepared them for their careers, often in fields that one may not associate with international studies.

“The generous support of the Bancroft Fund and the dedicated work of Croft faculty and staff over two decades have created something unique. Croft offers an education that is at the same time specialized – command of a foreign language and knowledge about world affairs – and general by emphasizing strong writing and research skills. Prospective employers value that, and Croft truly has become a brand.”

Following this year’s Commencement, the institute has more than 500 graduates. Every year, between 40 and 50 students are expected to graduate from the institute with a bachelor’s in international studies, developing a growing network of Croft alumni that support one other and spread the reputation of the institute.

Though it was Abdalla who walked into Khayat’s office that day, plans for an international studies program had been floated earlier, by people such as Robert J. Haws, former chair of the UM Department of History, who joined the university in 1969; and Staton, who joined the university in 1977 and served as a professor and interim dean in the School of Law, associate provost and provost before her retirement in 2009. Staton died in May 2017.

When campus members begin hearing of the plans for the institute and the generous gift from the Joseph C. Bancroft Charitable and Educational Fund that would make it possible, a palpable energy began spreading on campus.

“There was tremendous excitement,” said Kees Gispen, who served as executive director of Croft from 2007 to 2016 and who has taught in Croft since its inception. “This was a dedicated program in international studies, which is something the university sorely lacked.

The announcement of the $60 million gift from the Joseph C. Bancroft Charitable and Educational Fund to the university to endow the Croft Institute for International Studies made headlines around the state and nation. Submitted photo

“It has historically been a pretty inward-looking school and concerned with Mississippi, and we’re always measuring ourselves in Mississippi, and the whole idea of looking beyond the boundaries of the state and, more than that, beyond the borders of the country was very innovative and exciting and electrifying.”

The students entering Croft in 1998 were educated in the George Street House, as the “Y” Building or the old chapel (built in 1853), where Croft calls home, underwent about a $3.5 million renovation, a project also funded by the Joseph C. Bancroft Charitable and Educational Fund.

Those first students entered Croft in a changing world, one shaped by globalization spreading via new trade agreements, the internet, increasing free trade, imaginative technologies and more. Croft was designed to prepare students for this new world.

Douglass Sullivan-González, dean of the UM Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, was in 1998 an Ole Miss history professor who was selected to teach in Croft. He also was part of the Croft organizing team.

The Croft planners knew the importance to the institute and international studies of students learning a foreign language.

“Any diplomat will tell you that once you can understand and express yourself in the native language, you have an inside; you’re not on the outside always,” Sullivan-González said. “We envision our students obtaining positions at the highest levels in the nation as an outgrowth of this program, which would include the diplomatic corps. …

“Language carries our students farther. I would say our experiences have borne this out, especially beyond our wildest expectations. We have one of the best teaching corps in the nation here, and our students are catching prize possessions of jobs, given their language proficiencies.”

Another key decision early on required Croft students to spend at least a semester abroad in a country that speaks their chosen language, said Peter Frost, who was interim Croft director during its planning year and taught in the program for 15 years.

“I do not remember any debate over this wise decision,” he said. “Here Ole Miss faculty instantly understood what living abroad in a qualified program could do for a student’s maturity, let alone language fluency.”

Class sizes also were purposely kept small, Frost said, as “a small, carefully guided discussion group is much better at training students to think, participate and retain information than a faculty member droning on in a large, often sleepy, lecture hall.”

Also, students are required to write an honors thesis, Frost said. That senior honors thesis “is an amazing, tough and super-beneficial part of Croft that develops a close bond between the director and the student,” he said.

Jeremy Mills was an early Croft student, graduating from the institute in 2002. He works as the military program manager for the Winchester Division of Olin Corp. in Oxford.

Between the foreign language component, studying abroad and more, Mills’ Croft education distinguished him from his peers by making him adaptable, he said.

“The diversity of experiences I had and people I met while a student at the Croft translates today into me being able to adapt to pretty much any situation with relative ease,” he said. “Many people get uncomfortable and nervous with new places and people; for me, I crave those experiences.

“You never really get rid of the nervous part, but as someone told me, ‘It isn’t about getting rid of the butterflies; it is about making them fly in formation.'”

Blair McElroy also graduated from Croft in 2002 as part of the first cohort who started in 1998. As a high school student, she loved language and math and knew she wanted to study abroad, hence her decision to study at Croft.

She studied in China as part of her Croft education, and that exposure of studying and living in a different country – along with her other Croft experiences – has influenced her career.

McElroy is director of UM’s Study Abroad program and senior international officer.

“Majoring in international studies was incredible preparation for working in the field of international education,” she said. “The ability to communicate in another language, the intercultural communication skills gained through study at UM and abroad, and the knowledge imparted by the Croft program has given me the tools to facilitate programs in many disciplines, encourage partnerships around the world, and connect with faculty and staff on campus.”

Nearing its 20th anniversary, the Croft Institute has helped the university, the state of Mississippi and its people become players on the international stage. Powering that journey has been the Joseph C. Bancroft Charitable and Educational Fund, including a new $5 million commitment to the institute in 2016.

“Mississippi is part of the global economy just as much as any other state in the United States,” Abdalla said. “Large multinationals – such as Nissan and Toyota – and many smaller multinational companies operate in the state, and their management is looking for employees who have an understanding of the global connections in today’s economy.

“Even if they do not require command of a foreign language skill, employers like the fact that our students have experienced a different culture and know how to adapt to different practices at the workplace and beyond.

“If the United States wants to remain a world economic leader, it needs people who are truly international. … Every time a U.S. company wants to go global or expand its worldwide reach, it will be looking for employees willing to relocate to a foreign country. Students trained at Croft are ready to do that.”

Beyond moving the boundaries of the university internationally, the Croft Institute also has made UM a global destination for students.

“Having it in Mississippi is another wonderful thing … because it brings students from all over the world,” Gispen said. “People from other states have these perceptions of our state, and the more you can mix that up and bring people here and let them see with their own eyes, the more you gradually whittle down the stereotype of Mississippi.

“We’ve worked on that, and I think all of us continue to work on that. That’s a very important endeavor.”

Croft students are bright, motivated, inspired and grasp opportunity, Khayat said, and no matter where they go, they move forward as ambassadors of the university and the state, opening up a world of possibility.

“It’s become one of the stellar programs in America,” Khayat said. “Really a leading, cutting-edge international studies program.

“Croft … gets you focused on the larger world and gives you a chance to be a part of it.”

UM Doctoral Student, Graduate Named US Fulbright Finalists

Eric Rexroat headed to Belgium, Andrew Hayes going to Spain

Eric Rexroat, a doctoral history student, will study at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Communications

OXFORD, Miss. – A University of Mississippi doctoral student and a recent graduate will study in European countries this fall, thanks to the 2018 Fulbright U.S. Student Program.

Eric Rexroat, a Ph.D. candidate in the university’s Arch Dalrymple III Department of History, and Andrew Hayes, a graduate of the Croft Institute for International Studies and Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, are both finalists in the prestigious awards program.

A St. Charles, Missouri, native, Rexroat will be at the University of Antwerp, Belgium, from this September until March 2019. He will conduct research at the Royal Library of Belgium and National Archives of Belgium, both in Brussels, as well as work under the direction of professor Hilde Greefs and some of her colleagues.

Hayes, a Tupelo native who planned to pursue a master’s degree at the London School of Economics before receiving his Fulbright notification, will teach English at a public high school in Madrid, Spain, during the 2018-19 academic year.

The highly selective program chooses undergraduate seniors, and graduate and terminal-degree students from the U.S. to study at select colleges around the globe.

“This year’s University of Mississippi awardees are exceptionally qualified as strong students and researchers,” said Tim Dolan, director of UM’s Office of National Scholarship Advisement. “They also all demonstrated their commitment to language and culture through their civic engagement, study abroad or language study. They had to think through and articulate their qualifications and goals, and to imagine ways to engage with the people and culture in their host community.”

Rexroat, who earned his bachelor’s degree at Southeast Missouri State University in 2012, vividly recalls how he received notification of his award.

“I learned while in Paris doing research that I had been chosen as an alternative (which he said he viewed as an achievement in itself), but my understanding was that there would be little chance of my being promoted to a finalist,” he said. “Obviously something changed, and it was a very pleasant surprise.”

Hayes, who earned his bachelor’s degrees in international studies (with a specialization in Spanish) and economics from UM this past May, said he had a similar reaction upon receipt of his notice.

“I was humbled to have received such a prestigious award and excited for the opportunity to work with students abroad,” he said. “I hope to possibly expand upon my senior thesis, which described trends of youth unemployment in Spain.”

Andrew Hayes, an international studies and economics graduate, will teach at a public school in Madrid, Spain. Photo by Kevin Bain/ Ole Miss Communications

For the past three springs, Rexroat has been recognized for his achievements. He received the Tenin-Alexander Prize from the history department for Best Graduate Student Paper in 2015, the Graduate Achievement Award from the College of Liberal Arts in 2016 and officially passed his comprehensive exams with distinction in 2017.

“My career goals include teaching European history at a college or university, as well as continuing my research and eventually publishing on 19th-century Europe,” Rexroat said. “Receiving this Fulbright award will enable me to work closely with and benefit from the feedback of my adviser at the University of Antwerp, as well as to expand my research by providing the opportunity to spend further time in Europe. The experiences I have during this stint abroad will be invaluable to my development as a scholar and a person.”

Hayes’ previous achievements include memberships in both Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Kappa Phi academic honorary societies.

“I plan to become a professor of economics,” Hayes said. “I hope that this opportunity will give me some experience in working with students across cultures.”

UM administrators and faculty members said both finalists deserve their awards.

“Andrew was a hardworking student who excelled in all the areas of the international studies curriculum: writing, critical thinking, quantitative analysis and language learning,” said William Schenck, associate director of the Croft Institute, who worked with Hayes on his senior thesis as a member of his committee. “The written thesis and his defense demonstrated the breadth and depth of his intellectual curiosity as well as his sense of humor.”

“Eric came as an M.A. student and has excelled ever since he stepped foot on campus, impressing faculty and colleagues alike with his seriousness of purpose and focus,” said Marc Lerner, associate professor of history and director of Rexroat’s dissertation.

“His dissertation research on free trade as ideology and political controversy in the mid-19th century is fascinating and important work. The comparative and international perspective is what makes this a particularly challenging and powerful dissertation topic. I am excited to see the results of his research.”

Hayes and Rexroat are the second and third UM students to be named Fulbright finalists during the 2018-19 academic year. Maria Mulrooney, a graduate student in higher education, was selected for the prestigious Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program to serve as an English teaching assistant in South Africa next year.

Established in 1946, the Fulbright program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government and is designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.

The primary source of funding for the Fulbright program is an annual appropriation made by the U.S. Congress to the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Recipients of Fulbright grants are selected based on academic or professional achievement, as well as demonstrated leadership potential in their fields.

Fulbright awards allow the Croft Institute and the other participating units on the Oxford campus to deliver on the university’s commitment to educating and engaging global citizens and supporting experiential learning, two cores established in the university’s new strategic plan, Flagship Forward.

Students interested in applying for the Fulbright U.S. Student Program award are encouraged to contact the Office of National Scholarship Advisement at onsa@olemiss.edu.

 

Go Forth and Prosper: Croft Alumni Take on the World

Six graduates reflect on their experience

OXFORD, Miss. – On a Saturday afternoon in May 2001, the first five graduates of the Croft Institute for International Studies at the University of Mississippi received their diplomas. The group included the program’s very first graduate, Lauren Michelle Gent, a Gulfport native who had completed her degree in May 2000.

The ceremony was short. The graduates and guests gathered in the Joseph C. Bancroft Conference Room in the newly renovated Croft building. There were congratulatory remarks. Then the five students – Gent, along with Julie Anna Newton, Martine Louise Schaefer, Jenny Christine Senften and Emily Melissa Sindelar – were presented their diplomas. A reception followed.

Two decades later, as the institute celebrates the 20th anniversary of its 1998 opening, Croft boasts 520 alumni, including 33 who are set to graduate Saturday (May 12).

Croft was established in 1997 by a generous gift and funded annually by the Joseph C. Bancroft Charitable and Educational Fund. Each class has fulfilled Croft’s mission of broadening the international horizon, with students and alumni traveling around the world, from the Siberian pine forests of Russia to the shining metropolis of Accra, Ghana, to the towering skyscrapers in the financial heart of Hong Kong.

It is not easy to describe a “typical” Croft alumni, but the institute’s selective admission, exceptional academic program, small classes and first-rate facilities – along with the requirement that Croft students study abroad for at least one semester – attract motivated and intelligent students who leave the institute prepared to succeed on the global stage.

“From the inception of Croft, the overarching goal of its curriculum for the international studies major was to educate students who knew how to navigate an increasingly interconnected world,” said Oliver Dinius, Croft executive director and associate professor of history. “The pillars of the curriculum are learning a foreign language, studying one world region in depth and gaining a broad understanding of global dynamics.

“The foreign language is a tool for communication, but its study also provides an understanding of the cultural context. Taking courses in history, social science and economics about a region and beyond trains the ability to analyze problems from multiple perspectives, an essential skill in today’s global market.

“The signature elements of our curriculum – the mandatory semester of study abroad and the writing of a senior thesis – reinforce the commitment to the foreign language and to research-based analysis, and they also serve as the proof that our students are ready to go out into the world as global citizens.”

According to Croft, 55 percent of its graduates are employed in the private sector, with other alumni working in the public sector, nonprofits or education. Those in the private sector hold jobs in banking, finance, insurance and accounting; law; media, marketing and public relations; and other fields such as business and manufacturing, consulting and lobbying, and technology.

Public sector occupations include serving in the military, working for the U.S. Department of State or Congress, and being employed in various federal, state and local government agencies. Croft graduates working for nonprofits run the gamut, from the arts and education to international development and human rights.

About half of Croft alumni in the education field are professors, teachers and researchers, while the other half are administrators.

No two Croft alumni stories are alike. Here are six examples of what Croft alumni do:

Chris Lamont

Chris Lamont, Class of 2002 

Associate professor of international relations at Tokyo International University in Tokyo

Originally from Houston, Texas, Lamont attended the Croft Institute because of “a strong interest in international affairs.”

“Given the program’s focus on languages and study abroad, I thought it was a perfect fit,” he said.

What he found at Croft was a strong interdisciplinary foundation in international studies and rigorous research training, and the opportunity to study abroad, which he did in Croatia. That study abroad experience led to a Fulbright Program scholarship that allowed him to spend a year in Zagreb, Croatia, researching post-conflict justice processes in the former Yugoslavia, which ultimately led him to continue working on the topic for years to come.

“Pretty much every member of the Croft faculty encouraged me to embrace research interests that would remain with me throughout my career,” Lamont said. “The interdisciplinary focus of the major helped give me a broader foundation in international relations that went far beyond the narrow discipline specific training that is offered elsewhere.

“Also, Croft provided me with an opportunity to begin to gain early experience conducting fieldwork and to carry out my own research that would later allow me to get a head start on my Ph.D. dissertation research.”

Daniel Booth

Daniel Booth, Class of 2005 

Worldwide account manager at FedEx in Memphis

Booth, a native of Amory, does not hold back when talking about how Croft affected his life and career.

“Every class, professor and teacher had a positive impact on my life,” he said. “I truly believe the Croft Institute is one of the best undergraduate programs in the international studies field. Dr. Michael Metcalf, Dr. Peter Frost, Dr. Kees Gispen and Dr. Holly Reynolds all come to mind as being extremely impactful on my education and development.”

Also a licensed customs broker, Booth works for a global company that serves more than 220 countries and territories with more than 500,000 team members, moving more than 12 million packages a day.

Having a Croft degree positioned Booth for working on the international stage.

“For much of my life, I had a passion for all things international and different cultures,” he said. “I work with individuals inside of FedEx and customers all over the globe each and every day, and I have been afforded amazing travel opportunities. … I believe my international studies education and study abroad experience through Croft created a great foundation for me to be successful in my career.”

Susan Hedglin

Susan Lawrence Hedglin, Class of 2009 

Consultant for oncology research and development, and finance with Eli Lilly and Co. in Indianapolis

Growing up in Madison in the 1990s, Hedglin witnessed the daily headlines of a changing world, she said, from the post-Soviet economic transitions in Russia to China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001.

She entered Croft because she was drawn to government and policy, had several friends who went through Croft and raved about it, and knew of the program’s sterling academic reputation.

After graduation, Hedglin gravitated toward business instead of government, but her Croft education is always with her. Her consulting position includes quickly processing data from current events to policy changes to large amounts of internal company information. Croft’s rigorous academics prepared her for that.

Plus, her studies gave her extra benefits.

“I always love the look on people’s faces when I tell them I speak Mandarin Chinese,” she said. “They ask, ‘Where did you learn that?’ and the jaws drop when I say, ‘the University of Mississippi.’

“Even though I am based in the U.S., I work at a multinational company with business partners from around the world. Having knowledge of their background and culture helps me build effective relationships. Lots of people are curious about the world, but Croft helps students see it – and process it – in depth at a young age. It’s a valuable foundation to build a career on.”

Cooper Reves

Cooper Reves, Class of 2010 

Digital director for the office of U.S. Sen. John McCain in Washington, D.C.

Reves’ introduction to international studies started in high school in Madison, where he took a course on Chinese history and Mandarin.

“I learned a deep appreciation for cultures outside my own, and I wanted to continue exploring that curiosity into my college career,” he said. “Thankfully, Ole Miss offered an incredible program in international relations at the Croft Institute that I was able to take advantage of.”

But Reves’ education at Croft went beyond the borders of China; he learned history, economics and how to appreciate differences among cultures.

“But most of all, the Croft Institute taught me analytical reasoning skills that I have been able to adapt into my career in campaign politics and digital organizing,” he said. “No matter what you do after college, the skills you learn debating world issues with your fellow classmates in the Croft building will serve you in any capacity.

“At the Croft Institute, I developed the intellectual self-confidence necessary to thrive in the political world. I also know that the historical perspective on current world events that Croft teaches has been directly applicable to my work. Though I work in American politics, the historical echoes of our current political environment are undeniable, and being well-versed in recent world history has proven to be indispensable.”

Deeneaus Polk

Deeneaus Polk, Class of 2011 

Director of the Mississippi Apprenticeship Program for the Mississippi Community College Board in Jackson

While at Pascagoula High School, Polk spent time in Germany and decided there that he wanted to become ambassador to that country in the future. To reach that goal one day, Polk was drawn to Croft because he knew the strong interdisciplinary program would challenge him.

Still working toward his dream, Polk will begin working on a master’s degree in public policy this fall at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government on a full scholarship. The Pascagoula native said the Croft Institute is a large reason why.

In 2015, Polk became the first Mississippian to land an exclusive German Chancellor Fellowship that took him to Germany for a year of study and research, during which he sought to contextualize the German Vocational Education System to fit within Mississippi.

“There are two individuals who are no longer part of Croft that I would love to express gratitude towards,” he said. “I didn’t grow up with much and was the first in my family to go to college, but Dr. Michael Metcalf saw past all of that and urged me to apply to the Croft Institute while I was still in high school.

“Similarly, Dr. Kees Gispen implored me to apply to Croft. … He challenged me to dig deeper in expanding my academic capacity, because passion is only beneficial for others if it is refined and purposeful in its intent.”

Elizabeth Romary, Class of 2017 

English teacher with Peace Corps in Namibia

Only a year removed from her Croft studies, Romary is roughly 7,500 miles from her home of Hillsborough, North Carolina, teaching English and natural science at a primary school to sixth- and seventh-graders at a village in the southern African nation of Namibia.

Her teaching adventure in Namibia is partly because of Dinius, she said.

“Without Dr. Dinius’ guidance, I wouldn’t be here today,” she said. “So I am grateful for everything he taught me during my four years at Croft. I hope that I’m making him proud.”

Romary’s interest in international studies is an equation that includes an interest in international events, politics, cultures and languages from an early age.

“When I learned about the Croft Institute, I instantly knew that this was the program for me,” she said. “I loved the fact that we would be completely immersed in a language, get to broaden our global horizons on multiple levels and have the opportunity to study abroad in a different part of the world.”

Croft’s foreign language requirement came in handy when Romary was assigned by the Peace Corps to learn Khoekhoegowab, a local language that contains “clicking” sounds.

“It was an incredibly difficult yet rewarding process, and I feel that the language practice I had in Croft helped me to prepare for the classes I took here,” she said.

To read more about Croft alumni, visit http://www.croft.olemiss.edu/alumni/.