Chance of a Lifetime Realized

Laurel Middle School students find meeting former UM Chancellor Robert Khayat to be transformative

Students from Laurel Junior High in Laurel, MS visit with Chancellor Emeritus Robert Khayat from The University of Mississippi and talk to him about his book "The Education of a Lifetime".

Students from Laurel Junior High in Laurel, MS visit with Chancellor Emeritus Robert Khayat from The University of Mississippi and talk to him about his book “The Education of a Lifetime”.

OXFORD, Miss. – Some old dreams came true and new ones were born Thursday (April 17) as 31 Laurel Middle School students chatted with University of Mississippi Chancellor Emeritus Robert Khayat on the Oxford campus.

The students wanted to visit the campus after having read “The Education of a Lifetime,” Khayat’s best-selling memoir of his decades of experience at the university. The former administrator warmly greeted the group and their teacher in the Lyceum for a discussion of his book before they headed home.

“I never met an author before, so I was very nervous at first,” said Daijoura Hardy, an LMS eighth-grader. “But he (Khayat) has a cool personality and is very funny. After he took his coat off, I knew he was all right.”

Like the other 30 pairs of eyes intently watching Khayat, the 14-year-old hung on to every word spoken. The combination of reading his book and actually meeting the author on campus proved for many to be a transformative experience.

“Before I read his book and came here, I didn’t like Ole Miss because of the negative things I’d heard from others about it,” said Taylor Reed, 13. “After I read the book, I realized how ignorant I had been about this place. Now, I not only don’t think the same, but I want to come here as a student one day.”

Khayat, who celebrates his 76th birthday Friday (April 18), captivated his audience with his candor, humor and charm.

“I liked listening to him,” Reed said. “He is very real. He didn’t sugarcoat anything. I like that.”

The students decided on their own to read “The Education of a Lifetime” (Nautilus Publishing, 2013), and their response to this entirely optional assignment was overwhelming, said Joshua Walters, a teacher at LMS.

“Watching them take an interest in the many issues that the book raises and guiding their thoughts and discussions about its mature subject matter has been an extremely rewarding experience for me as a teacher,” Walters said.

The students’ viewpoints on the Confederate flag and other race-relations issues have been particularly intriguing, as all but six of them are African-American. Khayat described the events leading up to his efforts to remove the flag as a university symbol and the reactions that followed.

“The Confederate flag was an offensive symbol to many people and implied that the University of Mississippi was unwelcoming to people of color,” he said. “But even though some people were very emotional about maintaining it, I knew it had to be removed in order for us to move forward as Mississippi’s flagship university.”

Khayat said he was thrilled to meet with Walters’ students for a number of reasons.

“First, his students will read an accurate account of the evolution of Ole Miss in recent years,” he said. “It is exciting to know they are interested not only in Ole Miss, but in recent history. Second, there is nothing quite as informative as an in-person visit to a place of interest. By coming to see us, the students will feel as well as see the university.

“And finally, once they visit us, it is likely that many of them will choose Ole Miss as their university, and we will welcome them to our community.”

Walters’ hopes that his students would receive several benefits from meeting Khayat and seeing the UM campus were realized.

“As a graduate of Ole Miss, I wanted my students to read ‘The Education of a Lifetime’ in order to dispel the negative stereotypes that many of them had about the university,” Walters said. “Also, since they will be entering high school next year, I wanted them to start thinking about college and some of the social issues, both good and bad, that they may face in the real world.”

The students agreed they were very satisfied with their visit with Khayat.

“Ole Miss is not what many people think it is,” Hardy said. “This visit has changed my perception of it. Mississippi has many great places, and Ole Miss is one of those places. I definitely want to attend college here one day.”

Hardy’s reaction is music to Khayat’s ears.

“I fell in love with college when I came here,” he said. “I’m glad to know others are now seeking to do the same.”