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

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.”

UM-Tupelo Students Hit Top 10 in Bloomberg Stock Trading Challenge

Class project yields solid investing experience for group

Finance students at the UM-Tupelo campus placed in the top 10 among 265 teams from colleges around the country in the Bloomberg Business Stock Trading Challenge. The winning team includes (from left) Daniel Patterson, Zack Marcinek, faculty adviser Ivonne Liebenberg, Candy McDonald and Heather Couture. Submitted photo

OXFORD, Miss.­­­ – Managerial finance students at the University of Mississippi at Tupelo regional campus have been busy this spring managing a $10 million investment for the Bloomberg Business Corp.

Although the money existed only in theory, the students who participated in the 2017 Bloomberg Trading Challenge gained a real-world knowledge of financial trading principles that helped them bridge classroom theory with actual stock marketing trading.

“I had never participated in anything like this before,” said Zack Marcinek, a senior at UM-Tupelo from Corinth. “I enjoyed it so much that I’ve switched my career goals a bit from wanting to be a financial adviser specifically for individuals to now being more interested in becoming a corporate financial analyst for a larger corporation.”

Ivonne Liebenberg, UM instructional assistant professor of finance, said that when Bloomberg representatives reached out to her in fall 2016 about participating in their new collegiate stock market competition, she jumped at the opportunity for her students to garner investing experience.

“I knew this would be an exciting, interactive way for students to apply what they were learning in class,” she said. “They had the opportunity to learn more about how the stock market works, handling orders, learning about transaction costs and analyzing the outcomes.”

The Tupelo students named their trading team “I. Liebenberg & Co.” in honor of their instructor. Team members included Heather Couture of Mooreville, Zack Marcinek of Corinth, Candy McDonald of Guntown, Daniel Patterson of Pontotoc and Katie Watson of Shannon.

“We started out letting the students pitch their stock ideas,” Liebenberg said. “They had to give me a good reason to add their stock pick to the portfolio. Once we made our decisions, the students began analyzing and following their investments.”

To diversify their portfolio, each student focused on different stock areas to create a balanced investment. Marcinek said he focused on technology stocks and ultimately recommended Netflix and Adobe Connect.

“Both companies are tried-and-true,” Marcinek said. “Most of my friends use Netflix. It seems to be cannibalizing regular television.

“The university uses Adobe Connect in several of my classes. I think it’s only going to progress.”

Both his stock picks recorded gains during the competition.

The trading challenge introduced students to Bloomberg’s Stock Terminal, which is used to define market assumptions, develop a return-generating strategy and execute trades over a closed network.

“It was interesting seeing all of the tools that were part of the trading terminal and how they helped you assess your trades,” Marcinek said. “It wasn’t too complicated and coached us through.”

The competition continued for eight weeks, with students having opportunities to buy and sell stocks throughout that timeframe. The teams that generated the highest return and presented the best investment methodology at the end of the challenge were named among the top 10 finalists.

“We decided to go invest Warren Buffett-style, that is, to buy and hold,” Marcinek said. “We thought by diversifying well and staying patient, our strategy would pay off.”

The students had to keep a close eye on their stocks, but Liebenberg said she felt that trading too much might not garner the greatest return in the competition’s short eight-week timeframe.

In mid-April, Bloomberg representatives informed Liebenberg that the team was came in ninth among the 265 competing teams from 81 colleges around the country.

“I’m very proud of the students’ work, especially since this was their first time competing,” Liebenberg said. “I think they learned a great deal and came up with solid strategies to guide their trading.”

UM Volunteers Working at Career Expo in Tupelo

Three-day event designed to help junior high school students focus on opportunities

UM Field Station Director Scott Knight (center) shares with 8th grade students during the Career Expo. (Submitted photo by William Nicholas)

UM Field Station Director Scott Knight (center) shares with eighth-grade students during the Career Expo. Submitted photo by William Nicholas

OXFORD, Miss. – More than 60 University of Mississippi staff and students are working to get area eighth-graders thinking about their future at the Imagine the Possibilities Career Expo this week.

The event began today (Oct. 4) and ends Thursday (Oct. 6) at the BancorpSouth Arena in Tupelo.

With the Toyota Wellspring Education Fund at CREATE Foundation as its lead sponsor, the three-day expo is designed to make eighth-graders aware of opportunities available after graduation. Some 7,000 students from more than 70 schools, including Oxford and Lafayette County schools, are expected.

“Our primary responsibility will be to manage UM’s various exhibits and engage with the students,” said William Nicholas, director of economic development at UM’s Insight Park and one of the organizers. “However, there will be ample opportunity to contribute in a number of ways. They need volunteers to check-in students, manage parking, distribute packets, distribute water, door greeters and so forth.”

Other UM organizers for expo are Ellen Shelton, director of pre-college programs in the Division of Outreach and Continuing Education; John Holleman, director of graduate studies in the School of Education; and Allyson Best, associate director for technology management in the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs.

Other UM divisions participating include the Haley Barbour Center for Manufacturing Excellence, the Center for Mathematics and Science Education, the UM Field Station, the Center for Intelligence and Security Studies and the university’s Tupelo regional campus.

“The CREATE Foundation was created to support an improved quality of life for people residing in 17 counties in northeast Mississippi, including Lafayette County,” Nicholas said. “CREATE does a number of things to fulfill their mission, and this expo is one of them. Dr. Alice Clark, vice chancellor for university relations, serves on the board.

Amanda Pham (forefront) of UM's Center for Mathematics and Science Education gave a robotics demonstration during the Expo. (Submitted photo by William Nicholas)

Amanda Pham (forefront) of UM’s Center for Mathematics and Science Education gave a robotics demonstration during the Expo. (Submitted photo by William Nicholas)

“UM is participating in the expo because we share in CREATE’s passion to connect with eighth-grade students and help them understand career opportunities available after graduation.”

Other Ole Miss organizers affirmed Nicholas’ observation.

“We want the participants to know that their experiences with UM can begin with summer programs for junior high and high school students,” Shelton said.

“The opportunity for eighth-grade students to connect with a wide variety of career functions represented at the career expo truly allows them to begin thinking about the world of work,” Holleman said.

The Imagine the Possibilities expo features activities connected to 18 career pathways: aerospace; agriculture, food and natural resources; architecture and construction; arts, A/V technology and communications; business management and administration; education and training; energy; engineering; finance; government and public administration; health science; hospitality and tourism; human services; information technology; law, public safety, corrections and security; manufacturing; marketing; and transportation, distribution and logistics.

Tupelo Campus Graduates Earn University’s Highest Academic Award

University of Mississippi at Tupelo students are congratulated by UM Chancellor Dan Jones (center) for their academic achievement upon being named 2012 Taylor Medalists. UM photo by Robert Jordan.

TUPELO, Miss. – Sometimes people surprise themselves by accomplishing something they never imagined they could. This is exactly what happened to Toni Reiner of Fulton, a recent graduate of the University of Mississippi’s Tupelo regional campus. Reiner, who graduated last fall with a bachelor’s degree in social work, was named a UM Taylor Medalist for achieving one of the highest grade-point averages within her program.

“I can’t believe how well I did or how much I enjoyed college,” Reiner said.

“I didn’t like high school at all. I didn’t go straight to college out of high school because I didn’t think I would do very well. I didn’t know that I could be a good student until I tried.”

Reiner joins three other Ole Miss-Tupelo students who were awarded the university’s highest academic award, the Marcus Elvis Taylor Memorial Medal, during a recent Honors Convocation on the Oxford campus. The other Tupelo campus awardees are Carroll Lee and Kerri Franks, both of Amory, and Matthew Craig Pharr of Marietta. Taylor Medals recognize no more than 1 percent of the Ole Miss student body each year for meritorious scholarship and deportment. Recipients must have at least a cumulative 3.90 GPA. Reiner worked a variety of part-time jobs after high school before she realized she wanted more than a job – she wanted a career.

“I came to the realization that I needed to be able to provide for myself financially, but at the same time, I really wanted to make a difference in the lives of others,” she said. “I wanted my career to be worthwhile.”

Reiner works as a social worker with an emergency children’s shelter in Tupelo. Pharr decided to enroll at the Tupelo campus to become better equipped to serve the educational, emotional and spiritual needs of area residents. Pharr graduated from Booneville High School in 2007 and enrolled at Northeast Mississippi Community College. He began serving as a youth minister in local churches while he was a college student.

“A great deal of ministry is education,” Pharr said. “I knew that earning a teaching degree could be useful as I minister to others. I want to continue on in my personal education by enrolling in seminary and perhaps working on my Doctorate of Theology in the future.”

Pharr worked as a student teacher in the sixth grade this spring at Itawamba Attendance Center in Fulton. He learned about using best practices for teaching students who are transitioning from childhood to the teenage years, he said. “I was blessed with a wonderful mentor teacher and really great students,” he said. “I learned to use everyday things to teach creatively. There is really a push to be innovative in the classroom, and I learned to build on this concept.” Franks is another UM-Tupelo graduate who feels she had an eye-opening experience during her semester of field experiences at Itawamba Attendance Center.

Mentored by seasoned special education instructors, Franks appreciates the chance she had as a new teacher to experience a different type of educational environment.

“During my semester of student teaching in a special education classroom, I would wake up in the morning wondering what more I could do for this particular student, or what I was not teaching in the classroom that I should be,” Franks said. “This was truly the first time I realized that I was a teacher.” While taking courses at the Tupelo campus and completing teacher-training hours, Franks was also caring for her 5-year-old daughter, Jadyn. “Having a child of my own gave me a different outlook on education,” she said.

“I understand how important those early years of education are to the foundation of a student’s learning ability. This is where it all begins. I also took a different approach to my own education. I had to take it more seriously and have the end-goal in mind at all times.” Lee enrolled in the radiology program at Itawamba Community College before she realized that her true calling was in the education field. “It just grew clearer that teaching was what I had always wanted to do,” Reiner said. “I changed my major and switched classes when I realized that this was the profession I needed to pursue.” Lee worked as a waitress on the weekends while taking her junior- and senior-level college courses at the Tupelo campus.

“My education professors at UM-Tupelo were definitely instrumental in my success,” she said. “They took an interest in my education and me. They wanted me to become the best teacher possible.” Lee said she hopes to continue her education by enrolling in the Master of Curriculum and Instruction program at Ole Miss-Tupelo in the near future. “There is always more to learn,” Lee said. “I know I’ll always need to keep improving as a teacher. My students will benefit from my continued education as much as I will, and that is really important.” For more information on program at the UM Tupelo regional campus, click here.