UM-Tupelo Alumni, Executive Director Among Tupelo’s ‘Top 40 Under 40’

Former business students and administrator honored for 2018

Albine Bennett

TUPELO, Miss.­­­ – Two former University of Mississippi at Tupelo students and the campus’ executive director have been named to northeast Mississippi’s “Top 40 Under 40” list of influential leaders.

Business, civic, and community leaders who are 40 years of age and under are nominated by community members and evaluated by an independent panel. Hosted by the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, the official awards ceremony was Oct. 25 at Tupelo’s “The Hub” in Journal Business Park.

Among those selected for the honor were Tupelo regional campus graduates Albine Bennett and Blakley Moore Young and UM-Tupelo Executive Director Derek Markley.

Bennett is a 2011 graduate of the Tupelo campus with a bachelor’s degree in managerial finance. She serves as director of communications for the CREATE Foundation in Tupelo, where among other duties, she coordinates the annual “Imagine the Possibilities” career expo.

“My time as a student at UM-Tupelo helped me not only gain knowledge in my field, but it also helped me gain confidence in myself,” Bennett said. “I was able to meet different people from all walks of life, which helped me to broaden my horizons.”

Bennett said she appreciated the connections she made in the community as an active member of various student organizations at the Tupelo campus. She volunteers for several area nonprofit groups, including Sanctuary Hospice House and the Salvation Army. She is also a board member for the local women’s leadership group New Expectations for Women in Mississippi.

Derek Markley

Markley has been executive director of the university’s Tupelo and Booneville regional campuses since 2014. He is also an assistant professor of leadership and counselor education, and enjoys volunteering as a youth soccer coach and with several Tupelo-area organizations including the Community Development Foundation and CREATE.

“It is a humbling experience to be included with such a great group of hardworking people,” Markley said. “As a university, I think we’re fortunate to have campuses in northeast Mississippi so we can be a part of the growth and development of this region.

“I was very honored to be in the same room with so many people committed to the success of Tupelo and the surrounding areas.”

Young is a 2007 graduate of the Tupelo campus with a bachelor’s degree in marketing. She is the digital sales manager for television station WTVA, where she was named one of the Top 50 Leading Business Women in the state by the Mississippi Business Journal.

“The University of Mississippi Tupelo campus helped prepare me in so many ways,” Young said. “The classes that I took there provided me with the education and insight I need to now assist my digital agency clients as they look to grow their businesses.

“As a leader in my organization, my management classes were invaluable to the work I do now.”

Blakley Young

Young serves as a board member with the Tupelo Sanctuary Hospice Junior Auxiliary and volunteers with The Shepard’s Hands organization, which provides assistance to at-risk women and children in north Mississippi. She also is involved with several other professional organizations, including the Public Relations Association of Mississippi and Tupelo Young Professionals.

“My time at UM-Tupelo helped to lay the foundation for being involved in my community and giving back,” Young said. “It also provided lifelong relationships both personally and professionally that I am forever grateful for.”

For more information about the UM Tupelo regional campus, visit

DeSoto Campus Student Lands Unique FBI Internship

Madison Cleveland works with forensic accountants and special agents to solve crime

Madison Cleveland

SOUTHAVEN, Miss. – It isn’t every day that accountancy students are able to use their expertise to solve crimes. Madison Cleveland was able to do just that while interning with the FBI over the summer.

Cleveland, a senior accountancy major, attends classes at the University of Mississippi at DeSoto Center-Southaven. She began her 10-week internship at the bureau’s Memphis office in June.

“I worked as part of the Honors Internship Program in the criminal investigative division of the FBI,” said Cleveland, a Hernando native. “As a member of the investigative team, I worked with forensic accountants and special agents to help investigate complex financial crime.”

She conducted forensic financial analysis of business and personal records and accompanied case agents to various hearings and interviews. She was also able to work with administrators including the financial manager and auditor.

When Cleveland first walked into the FBI office, she wasn’t sure what to expect.

“I had no idea what team I would be placed on or what I would be doing, so I was really surprised every day by the opportunities that presented themselves,” she said. “Surprisingly enough, the most challenging part was remembering the steps to using all of the computer applications.

“At the beginning, the financial analysis was difficult, but they gave me guidance so I was able to catch on pretty quickly.”

Joel Freund, FBI supervisory special agent, oversaw Cleveland’s internship. He made it a point to expose her to as many different aspects of the job as possible.

“Madison was able to experience accounting, but she also spent time working with evidence, she was able to go to the range and she attended trials,” Freund said. “I wanted her to be able to do everything she could possibly do and I wanted the experience to be exciting.”

Cleveland first learned of the Honors Internship Program from Lynn Kugele, instructional assistant professor of finance at the DeSoto regional campus. Kugele encouraged Cleveland to apply, even though the application deadline was very short.

“Madison was such a great candidate for an FBI internship,” Kugele said. “She’s an accounting major, an outstanding student and a young woman of such excellent character, so this seemed like an exceptional opportunity to explore her interest in a career in forensic accounting at a very high level – at the FBI.”

The Honors Internship Program offers a multitude of opportunities for students in various majors, Freund said. The bureau recently wrapped up the application process for the 2019 summer internship cycle, but potential applicants from diverse backgrounds are encouraged to consider applying for future opportunities.

Madison Cleveland is sworn in for her FBI internship. Submitted photo

“If they have an interest in the FBI, then this is the first most logical step,” he said. “We try to give everyone a shot. There are also opportunities at other field offices including FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., and Quantico.”

Cleveland prepared for her interview with help from Kacy Dixon, coordinator of student services at the DeSoto Center. The process was long, but Cleveland said it was well worth the time and effort.

In fact, Cleveland enjoyed her internship so much that she will be working with the FBI again next summer. Freund said he looks forward to working with her again.

Cleveland strongly encourages her fellow students to take advantage of internship opportunities that come their way. She advises students to contact companies that they are interested in, even if they don’t have an internship posted.

“Internships are designed to give you a test run,” she said. “It helps you answer the questions: Do I like this company? Can I see myself working with this company long-term? Am I in an industry or position that I will enjoy?

“It also gives the company the opportunity to see how you work. Chances are, if you and the company both feel that you’re a good fit, you will get a job offer after school. If this isn’t the case then at least you have experience on your resume which increases your odds of finding another internship or your next job.”

After graduation, Cleveland plans to pursue a master’s degree in accounting and become a Certified Public Accountant. She then hopes to permanently join the FBI as a forensic accountant.

“Not only did working with the FBI give me physical experience to document on my resume, but it has also given me an in-depth understanding of many things I will need in a career,” she said. “It gives me talking points in interviews and the ability to think through problems critically based on real-world experience.

“It also allowed me to have inside connections at some of the leading corporations in Memphis that I can call on in the future.”

For more information about FBI internships, visit For information about UM- DeSoto, visit

DeSoto Campus Accountancy Major Receives CMA Scholarship

Alexander Beene plans to become a Certified Management Accountant

Alex Beene

SOUTHAVEN, Miss. – Alexander Beene, a senior accountancy major at the University of Mississippi at DeSoto Center-Southaven, has accepted a Certified Management Accountant Program Scholarship.

The scholarship was awarded last spring by the Institute of Management Accountants. It covers the entrance fee to the CMA program, registration fees for both parts of the CMA exam and up to three years of IMA membership. It also provides access to exam support programs and information.

“I am honored by all of my professors, student peers and colleagues that are supporting me throughout the tough years of completing my degree,” Beene said. “I was extremely excited and honored to be nominated and receive this scholarship.”

The IMA allows 10 students per school per academic year to be nominated for the scholarship. Beene was nominated by Howard Lawrence, clinical professor of accountancy at the DeSoto regional campus. Fellow accountancy major Timothy Nagle also encouraged Beene.

“Alex’s ‘secret’ to success is really no secret at all,” Lawrence said. “He shows up for all classes with his homework in hand and a clear understanding of the topics to be discussed. He does this by studying – not just reading – the material in advance.”

Originally from Lake Cormorant, Beene graduated in 2017 from Northwest Mississippi Community College with an associate degree specialized in accounting. He chose to continue his education at UM-DeSoto by enrolling in the university’s nationally acclaimed accounting program.

“When I was looking into going back to school early in 2015, I decided that I needed to push further than an associate degree and attempt a good career,” he said. “I looked at the different degrees that were offered fully at UM-DeSoto and analyzed their pros and cons.

“After seeing the high placement rate for accountancy graduates, I had to go in that direction.”

Beene plans to take both parts of the CMA exam in the summer of 2019.

“This gives me one year to prepare and I will have my bachelor’s degree all but completed,” he said.

Working while attending classes has been a challenge for Beene, who is married with two children. However, he hopes that the experience will help him after he receives his degree.

“By graduation, I hope to be a few steps ahead of my other peers in the accountancy program,” he said. “I just started working in June as a staff accountant at Vertrauen Chemie Solutions in Memphis after working at ABB as an operations coordinator.”

For information about the accountancy program at the UM-DeSoto campus, visit

Peeples Receives Outstanding Professional Educator Award

Graduate of Grenada regional campus hopes to set an example for his students

The Mississippi Association of Colleges for Teacher Education has named Terry Peeples (right), of Vaiden, as one of Mississippi’s Outstanding Professional Educators for 2017-18. Peeples, who attended the university’s Grenada regional campus, receives the award from David Rock, dean of the UM School of Education, during the organization’s annual awards ceremony in Vicksburg. Submitted photo

OXFORD, Miss.­­­ – The Mississippi Association of Colleges for Teacher Education has named Vaiden native Terry Peeples as one of Mississippi’s Outstanding Professional Educators of the Year.

The annual award is given to one graduate from each of 15 Mississippi colleges and universities. Peeples, who graduated from the University of Mississippi’s Grenada regional campus in 2015, was chosen to represent the UM School of Education.

Peeples has set an example for current and future teachers with his determination, drive and hard work during his three years as a full-time teacher at Winona Elementary School, said Karen Davidson Smith, UM clinical assistant professor of curriculum and instruction.

“Terry is receiving this honor because he has continuously demonstrated outstanding character and professional dispositions in his school by growing students, building an outstanding relationship with parents and the community, and being an advocate for his school district,” Smith said.

Peeples attended J.Z. George High School before transferring to Old Dominion Christian School in Kosciusko, where he graduated in 2008. He began his college career as a nursing major at Holmes Community College’s Grenada campus.

After transferring to another community college for a short time, he had a change of heart concerning his career path, and returned to Holmes-Grenada to work on his associate degree in elementary education.

“There were not a lot of guys in the education field, but I felt like students need better male role models,” Peeples said.

He later transferred to the UM Grenada campus, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in education in May 2015. That summer, he was hired as a fourth-grade math and science teacher in Winona.

Peeples jumped right into developing as a teacher by joining the UM Center for Math and Science Education’s Developing Excellence in Education through Professional Learning Communities, or DEEP, summer institute program. The program was developed to help teachers foster a classroom environment that helps students grasp a strong understanding of mathematics, make sense of problems, construct viable arguments and use the structure of mathematics.

“The DEEP learning community program gave me a great start as a math teacher,” Peeples said. “Going through the program helped me to think outside the box, and it gave me techniques to help challenge my students.”

In fall 2016, Peeples experienced another major career event when he was selected by Winona school officials to attend the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, along with five others from the school district.

“It’s the dream for teachers,” Peeples said. “The innovative teaching philosophies I learned there will forever impact the way I teach.

“I learned how to incorporate music into my lessons, make my classroom instruction more student-led and reduce behavior problems down inside the classroom. I watched some of the greatest teachers in the world teach lessons, and it opened my eyes to a whole new world as a teacher.”

Peeples said he gained a better understanding of educational relationships that need to be fostered with students and their parents, and he also explored the learning benefits of incorporating fun and music into lessons.

“I get their attention by playing music they like, mostly the instrumentals,” Peeples said. “The students know, though, that we have to be working. The music is just motivating us to work through the math problems, and sometimes I don’t even talk.

“I’m at the board working problems both correctly and incorrectly to see if they catch on to the mistakes.”

Peeples’ unique teaching style went viral this past year when a video of him walking on desks in his classroom while teaching a science rap garnered hundreds of views on Facebook.

Peeples said another important lesson he learned at the academy is how to command his class and hold students responsible for their behavior.

“It really works,” he said. “Behavior problems have been cut down drastically.”

Peeples is working toward his master’s degree in educational leadership with the goal of someday becoming a school principal. He and his wife, Mercedes, are already teaching a love of math to their two children, Jaerrius and Nadia.

“Even on the hard days when I feel like I can’t get through to particular students, I try to remember that they are just kids, and I’m still making a positive impact on their lives,” Peeples said.

“Growing up, I learned that it is better to look up to and imitate the people around me who were doing the right things and staying out of trouble. I hope I will inspire my students to do the same.”

Grenada Graduate Earns UM Student Teacher of the Year Award

School of Education recognizes Mary Courtney Self for outstanding work

Mary Courtney Self of Grenada (left) is honored by UM education Dean David Rock with the 2018 Robert W. Plants Student Teacher of the Year Award. Self worked this spring as a student teacher in Diane Brewer’s first-grade class at Grenada Elementary School. UM photo by Bill Dabney

GRENADA, Miss. – Mary Courtney Self, of Grenada, was caught off-guard when her name was called for a special award during the University of Mississippi at Grenada’s annual graduation celebration earlier this spring.

“I was shocked,” Self said. “I had no idea I was being considered for this honor.”

During the evening’s program, Karen Davidson-Smith, assistant clinical professor of education, announced Self as the recipient of the 2018 Robert W. Plants Outstanding Student Teacher of the Year award. She was chosen for the award from hundreds of senior education majors graduating from five different Ole Miss campuses.

“Mary Courtney excelled at every opportunity to make and extend connections between teaching theory and teaching practices,” Davidson-Smith said. “She used a variety of teaching methods and techniques this semester that helped her students learn in the ways that suited each student best.”

The annual award is named for longtime UM faculty member Robert W. Plants, a former chair of the curriculum and instruction department. Each year the School of Education recognizes an exceptional student who stood out during their semester-long student-teaching practicum with the award.

“Ever since I was little, I knew I wanted to be a teacher,” Self said. “I felt like my instructors were invested in me and my future, and I wanted to do the same for others.”

While student teaching and completing classes at the University of Mississippi at Grenada, Self also was caring for her 2-year-old daughter, Sawyer Grace. Submitted photo

Self graduated from Grenada High School in 2013 and enrolled at Holmes Community College’s Grenada campus. In fall 2014, she took a break from her studies and spent a semester working in the Disney College Program at Walt Disney World in Florida.

“I wanted to have an experience,” she said. “I worked at different restaurants and had the opportunity to meet a lot of different people from all over the world.”

Upon her return to Mississippi, Self enrolled in the junior year of the Bachelor of Elementary Education program at the university’s Grenada regional campus.

“Going to UM-Grenada was the best thing for my daughter and myself,” she said.

Diane Brewer, a teacher at Grenada Lower Elementary for more than 20 years, served as the lead teacher and clinical instructor in the first-grade class where Self interned this spring.

“Mary Courtney has the natural instincts to be a great teacher,” Brewer said. “She would see a few students lagging behind in a concept we were teaching, and she would spend the extra time working with them until they understood.”

Self said she will be fulfilling her lifelong dream when she begins teaching sixth-grade English at Grenada Middle School this fall.

“I’m not just teaching English and grammar,” Self said. “I’m helping to mold students into the people they are going to become.”

UM-DeSoto Alumna Prepares Students for Dream Careers

Alice Robeson uses personal experience to assist nontraditional students

Alice Robeson

SOUTHAVEN, Miss. – In her role as a graduate services specialist at Concorde Career College, Alice Robeson does anything and everything she can do to help students land the perfect job.

“I teach them how to dress for success, how to write a resume and how to interview,” Robeson said. “I encourage them to take that next step because they truly can be whatever they want to be.”

Robeson received a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a human resource management emphasis from the University of Mississippi at DeSoto Center-Southaven in 2016. She regularly draws from her own college experience to guide students at Concorde’s Southaven campus.

Hailing from Jamestown, Tennessee, she enrolled in 1998 at Tennessee Tech University, where she ultimately changed her major from education to business. She moved to Mississippi before she was able to finish a degree in her home state.

She first met with Pat Coats, coordinator of academic support services at UM-DeSoto, in 2013. Coats encouraged her to enroll at Northwest Mississippi Community College for a year before transferring. That decision changed her life, Robeson said.

“I was in my early 30s when I decided to go back to school at Northwest,” she said. “It amazed me that I could still do the work after 15 years. I have no doubt I would not be where I am if it hadn’t been for my time at Ole Miss-DeSoto and Northwest.”

Coats remembered Robeson and checked in with her periodically while she attended Northwest.

“I enjoyed getting to know Alice,” Coats said. “I could immediately tell she was going to do well at the DeSoto Center.”

Once she transferred to UM-DeSoto, she was influenced by Bud Hamilton, associate instructional professor of management.

“Dr. Hamilton made me want to be a better person,” she said. “I was inspired by his love of management and strategy, which helped me choose an emphasis in human resources.”

The flexible class schedule at UM-DeSoto was particularly helpful to Robeson, who had to work around a job and her young son’s football practices.

“As a working parent and single parent it was actually perfect for me,” she said. “It was the perfect balance of work, life and school.”

Students at Concorde have similar challenges, and Robeson has made it her mission to find ways to help them attend classes.

“We have a lot of nontraditional students that commute up to two hours to get here,” she said. “These students need to be in the classroom rather just taking an online course. We’re working on ways to alleviate some of that stress for them.”

Robeson began working at Concorde in June of 2017. One of her favorite success stories at the campus involves a student who was interviewing for an upper-level management position.

“I love the intrinsic reward that I get from seeing ‘aha moments’ firsthand, but when the students come back and tell me their stories – that’s what really gets me,” she said. “I worked with one young lady who was always very quiet and rarely spoke up, but I could tell she was listening.”

Robeson counseled the student on topics such as employer expectations, how to conduct a job search, resume writing and interview skills.

“She interviewed for a big project management position that was unlike one she had ever had,” Robeson said. “She called me after her interview and had all this excitement in her voice. She told me that she listened to everything I said and it worked. She got the job.”

Robeson unequivocally knew she was making an impact at Concorde when a colleague posted her photo on the campus’s Facebook page.

“The students started commenting about how much I’ve helped them,” she said. “It made me feel really good, and it brought tears to my eyes.”

For more information about the UM regional campus at DeSoto Center-Southaven, visit

Mother of Seven Pursues Degree After 20-year Break

UM-DeSoto student overcomes obstacles to chase graduation goals

Sarah Riehl

SOUTHAVEN, Miss. – Sarah Riehl began her collegiate journey in 1997 after graduating from Northshore High School in Slidell, Louisiana. Two decades later, she is continuing that journey at the University of Mississippi at DeSoto Center-Southaven.

Earning a degree has always been always a personal goal for Riehl, who attended Louisiana State University straight out of high school as an elementary education major. After two years at LSU, Riehl married and moved to Jacksonville, North Carolina.

Her husband was in the Marine Corps and stationed at Camp Lejeune. Riehl attended Campbell University there for a brief time before they were transferred to another station.

“I tried two or three times after that to go back to school,” Riehl said. “I went through the application process a couple of times at other duty stations.

“My husband made the decision to continue his career in the Marine Corps, so it got to the point where I couldn’t invest my time and money into something while knowing we would only be stationed there one, two, maybe three years.”

The couple began building their family and ultimately had seven children together. Riehl’s husband retired from the military in 2015 after being diagnosed with leukemia. They relocated to Hernando when his cancer was in remission.

“I decided that things were settling down and I wanted to go back to school,” Riehl said. “It was always my goal.”

She enrolled at Northwest Mississippi Community College in the spring of 2017 to earn the credits she needed to transfer to UM-DeSoto.

“If the DeSoto Center wasn’t here in Southaven, I wouldn’t have been able to do it,” she said. “Online was not an option, and I can’t drive an hour away, or even 45 minutes, into Memphis.”

Riehl’s husband died in March 2017 after his cancer returned.

“He was always 100 percent behind me in whatever I wanted to do,” she said. “He was my No. 1 fan. Because of his pension and all the things that we set in motion in his Marine Corps career, I have the capability to continue my education. It’s all about balance.”

Riehl is a general studies major at UM-DeSoto. As a single mother of seven, planning is a critical part of her week.

“I keep a big spiral-bound planner that I carry with me,” she said. “I’ve used that for years. Over the weekend, I plan my week ahead and I break things down.

“My youngest is in a day care program twice a week, so I do a lot of my studying and assignments while she’s there or when she takes naps.

“If I know something is coming up, then I plan an easier meal. I do a lot of freezer crockpot meals. Twice a year, my kids help me do a big grocery shop and we prep meals and put them in the freezer. That’s one more thing I don’t have to worry about.”

As for what’s next for Riehl, she will be taking things slow and focusing on her family. Riehl has some 12 classes left before she is able to graduate.

“Regardless of what I decide to do with my degree, I’m still a mom first. My kids range from 16-years-old down to 1-year-old, and they are always going to be first. This is something that I want to finish for me – and I have so many courses that it’s not going to take that long.”

She credits UM-DeSoto admissions counselor Blake Bostick, as well as academic counselors Valerie Haynes and Candace Roberts for assisting her in the transition back to college.

“Every step of the way, Blake has been easing me into it because it’s been so long since I’ve been in school,” she said. “I know it’s not impossible, but so much has changed.

“The technology aspect has been my biggest fear. Candie and Valerie both have been so supportive. Knowing that they have my back – that’s big.”

Bostick applauds Reihl’s tenacity.

“Sarah’s motivation through the admissions process and in the classroom has been remarkable,” Bostick said. “Her perseverance to complete her education should serve as a true inspiration to students who are unsure if they can do it.”

Riehl encourages her children to never stop pursuing their goals, as she is doing.

“I think there’s always something to strive for, no matter how much you know or how good you are at something,” she said. “Whether it’s sports, or academics or your faith, be satisfied, but never stop trying to be better.”

For more information about the UM regional campus at DeSoto Center-Southaven, visit

UM-DeSoto Student Recognized for Volunteer Work

Ismail named child advocacy center's Volunteer of the Year, nominated for governor's award

Nazha Ismail

SOUTHAVEN, Miss. – For Nazha Ismail, one class project led to fulfilling holiday wishes for 65 DeSoto County foster children. That effort has resulted in a Volunteer of the Year award and an acknowledgement from the Mississippi governor’s office.

Hailing from Brooklyn, New York, Ismail is a senior general studies major at the University of Mississippi at DeSoto Center-Southaven. After receiving her associate degree in business from Northwest Mississippi Community College, she enrolled at UM-DeSoto in fall 2016.

Ismail, who minors in business, psychology and sociology, was initially looking for a place to volunteer for a class assignment. A friend suggested that she contact Healing Hearts Child Advocacy Center in Southaven.

HHCAC serves children and families in DeSoto and Tate counties. The nonprofit’s mission is to “respond to child abuse with a supportive team approach that reduces trauma through advocacy, treatment, education and prevention.”

“I wanted something close to home and something with longevity,” Ismail said. “I called and spoke to Mrs. Darlene Cunningham (the center’s family advocate) and I’ve been volunteering there since.”

Ismail thought she would be asked to help with typical office work, but Cunningham gave her a more meaningful task.

“It was a fundraiser where they gather wish lists from children in the foster care system and make sure they experience and have a Christmas,” Ismail said. “I asked if I can take on some of the children’s wish lists and after all was done, I ended up with 65 kids.

“I had never met any of the kids, but what mattered was I needed to make sure their wish lists were met. Many people helped me do that.”

Ismail began asking local businesses if they would consider donating to the project. She received toys, gift cards and monetary donations. She was able to fulfill all the children’s requests.

Ismail was recognized as Healing Heart’s Volunteer of the Year on May 5at the center’s Race to Heal Hearts fundraising event.

Nazha Ismail collected toys, gift cards and monetary donations to help fulfill the Christmas wishes of 65 children in the DeSoto County foster care system as a volunteer for Healing Hearts Child Advocacy Center. Submitted photo

“Nazha worked all fall to organize donations for the kids,” said Cheryl Beene, president of Healing Heart’s board of directors. “The photos of donations don’t even do justice to the amount of work she put in – she even got Southeastern Truck Lines to transport the gifts for us.

“All that said, we were thrilled to honor her as our Volunteer of the Year.”

Not only was Ismail named the center’s Volunteer of the Year, but she was also nominated for Mississippi’s 2018 Governor’s Initiative for Volunteer Excellence Award. As a nominee, she received a certificate of appreciation from Volunteer Mississippi and Mississippi’s first lady, Deborah Bryant.

“I personally didn’t feel I did enough, but these recognitions were very humbling and I am thankful for them,” Ismail said.

Ismail is still finalizing her plans for what she will do after graduation, but one thing is certain.

“I do wish to continue with Healing Hearts and any other organization that needs help,” she said. “I really feel that every person that wants to volunteer needs to visit one of many organizations and do it.

“Many people out there want to help but don’t know who to ask or where to start. All I can say is, just do it.”

For more information about the UM regional campus at DeSoto Center-Southaven, visit

Two Grandmothers Receive University’s Highest Academic Honor

From 'I can't go back to school' to earning Taylor Medals, new graduates aim to make a difference

Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter and Lori Fain. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Communications

OXFORD, Miss. – Lori Fain, of Sherman, and Brenda Raper, of Nettleton, are both busy mothers and grandmothers who not only spend time investing in their families but are beginning careers that also will allow them to invest in the lives of others in their community.

As students at the University of Mississippi at Tupelo, both ladies’ efforts are being honored this spring as recipients of 2018-19 Marcus Elvis Taylor Memorial Medals.

Only the top 1 percent of all students enrolled at the university receives this award each year. Recipients must have at least a 3.90 grade-point average to be considered and receive nominations from UM faculty.

“Brenda is truly one of those students I will never forget,” said Svjetlana Curcic UM associate professor of education. “We tend to assign a label of a ‘nontraditional student’ to those who enroll in college at a later day.

“In Brenda’s case, she has been a teacher of not only her own children, but other children in our community for years and by going back to school later in life, she has proven that she wants to become the best teacher she can be.”

Upon graduating from Itawamba Agricultural High School in 1980, Raper married and started working as a clerk at the Lee County Tax Collector’s office in Tupelo. She and her husband, Danny Samuel Raper, started a family and soon added three children to their home.

While raising children, she taught everything from 4-year old pre-K through fifth-grade classes in the private school housed at the Tupelo Children’s Mansion for 11 years. At the end of the 2012 academic year, the school program had to lay off employees, and Raper found herself at a crossroads.

Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter and Brenda Raper. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Communications

“My husband encouraged me to go back to school and get my degree,” Raper said. “I told him that I didn’t think I could do that, but he was very supportive and encouraged me until I finally decided to try.”

So, in 2014 at age 52, she enrolled at Itawamba Community College and started her college career.

“I was very nervous, but on the first day everyone treated me kindly and like one of the other students,” she said. “I really enjoyed my classes and realized more and more that I was doing the right thing by going back to school.”

After excelling at ICC, Raper transferred to start her junior year of classes on the UM-Tupelo campus. During her time there, she stayed involved in student organizations and worked to maintain her 4.0 GPA.

This spring she served as a student teacher in a third-grade classroom at Rankin Elementary School in Tupelo.

“I just love seeing the students learn and grow,” Raper said. “It’s a special job that I feel I was made for.”

Fain attended East Union High School before getting married and moving to Washington in 1990. A few years later, she returned home to Sherman and earned her GED at ICC in 1993.

Her family soon began expanding with the addition of her four children. Throughout this time, she worked as a phlebotomist with United Blood Services and later as an office manager with a local dentist.

After a divorce and unexpected job loss, Fain began to experience financial issues.

Lori Fain celebrates winning a Taylor Medal, the highest academic honor at UM, with sons Adrian and Carson Hester. Submitted photo

“I lost everything,” she said. “I lost my house, my car, and had to move home with my mother. I had my pity party for about a year, until I decided I had to do something so I might as well get ahead.”

That’s when she decided to work toward earning her bachelor’s degree in social work.

Fain said she decided to major in social work because she wanted to help people who might find themselves in the same situations she had struggled with.

“People can get lost,” Fain said. “I want to help other people who may be going through some hard times just like I did.

“If I had known about some of the resources that were available to me, I might could have stayed in my house. I want to help people when they need it the most.”

During her senior year, Fain helped to organize a “Kids Fest” event at Ballard Park in Tupelo. The event had free games and prizes for children while raising awareness for child abuse prevention.

“Not only did Lori excel academically, she was a leader with peers,” said Shane Robbins, a social work instructor at the regional campus. “Her passion to help others and be a leader in this field has been evident throughout her time at UM.”

Brenda Raper (center, seated) celebrates winning a Taylor Medal, the highest academic honor at UM, with her family. Submitted photo

Because of Fain’s life experiences, she demonstrated a unique ability to problem-solve in real-world scenarios, said Jandel Crutchfield, an assistant professor of social work at UM-Tupelo.

“We need more social workers like Lori, who can use critical thinking to create the most effective interventions possible for their clients,” Crutchfield said. “I believe she will make an important impact in this field.”

Fain said she has learned so much about herself throughout her time at Ole Miss.

“Even though when I started college I knew I wanted to help people, through my studies and my internship experiences, I have learned a better way to look at myself and how to empathize with other people,” she said. “I’ve learned how to step out of my place and into someone else’s situation to work toward the best solution to meet their needs.”

Booneville Student Earns University’s Highest Academic Honor

Tishomingo's Hannah Day awarded UM Taylor Medal

UM Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter congratulates Hannah Day of Tishomingo on being named a Taylor medalist for the 2017-18 academic year. The Taylor Medal is the university’s highest academic award and recognizes fewer than 1 percent of the student body. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Communications

OXFORD, Miss. – Hannah Day, a senior education major from Tishomingo at the University of Mississippi at Booneville, recently was selected to receive the university’s top academic honor as a Taylor medalist for the 2017-18 academic year.

Day was presented her award during the annual Honors Convocation on the Oxford campus.

“I was blown away when I heard that I had received the award,” Day said. “It validates all my hard work and long nights of studying. It was definitely worth it.”

Only the top 1 percent of University of Mississippi students can be awarded the Marcus Elvis Taylor Memorial Medal each year. Recipients must have at least a 3.90 grade-point average and recommendations from faculty members in their field.

Janie Conway, an adjunct instructor in the School of Education, was one of the faculty members who recommended Day for the honor.

“I was happy we had the opportunity to recognize Hannah’s hard work as well as her servant’s heart,” Conway said.

Day graduated from Belmont High School in 2014. She attended Northeast Community College, where she was involved in several organizations before transferring to UM-Booneville.

As a student teacher in a first-grade classroom at Hills Chapel School this spring, Day has worked to form relationships with students to find out more about their learning styles and how to help them be the best students that they can be, she said.

“I have always enjoyed math, and I want to help my students understand and enjoy it as much as I do,” Day said. “Math doesn’t have to be scary if you are given the tools to understand it.”

Conway recalled that Day showed such a passion for helping others grasp the concepts discussed in class that she often was mentoring and encouraging fellow classmates.

“Hannah was an active class participant who also supported the learning of her students and her peers,” Conway said. “I believe her high expectations for herself as an educator will help her future students become successful as well.”

Along with her own classes, Day serves as a youth coordinator and Sunday school teacher at Belmont United Methodist and as a volunteer with the local food bank, Angel Tree Christmas Drive, American Red Cross and the Salvation Army.

“I would hire Hannah without reservation as a teacher in my school,” Conway said. “I am so thankful that we have young people like Hannah to become future teachers and community leaders who truly care about their students.”