Degrees in Hand

UM staff members earn degrees as Red and Blue Graduates

James G. Thomas Jr. (center), associate director of publications for the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, guides a class on conducting research in the Department of Archives and Special Collections at the J.D. Williams Library. Thomas recently earned his Master of Fine Arts in documentary expression. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services.

OXFORD, Miss. – As operations coordinator for the University of Mississippi‘s Haley Barbour Center for Manufacturing Excellence, Ronica Turner works hard to ensure the success of the center’s students, faculty and staff.

And over the past few semesters, outside of her work duties making sure the center runs smoothly, she also pursued her bachelor’s degree in business administration at UM.

“I have looked at my education experience like a race,” she said. “There are people who are faster, and some are slower with doubters in the mix, so I have learned that patience and endurance is the best tool to have.”

In December, Turner finished her academic race, earning her bachelor’s degree. The degree wasn’t her victory alone, though.

“I have always had some wonderful cheerleaders in my corner, with my dad being my biggest role model; my husband, two wonderful daughters, my mother-in-law and sister have shared the cheering squad with him,” said Turner, who also thanked her co-workers in the Center for Manufacturing Excellence.

“Of course, my bachelor’s degree is just the beginning of what God has for me and my family,” she said. “My favorite scripture is Romans 8:28, ‘And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to his purpose.’

“There are so many times I wanted to stop or give up, but he had another plan for me.”

Ronica Turner

Turner’s story of perseverance and balancing work and academics is one repeated by staff members around campus, as she is among 27 UM staff members to earn either a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree during the 2019-20 academic year, including six who finished their degrees in August.

Known as Red and Blue Graduates, these Ole Miss employees successfully navigated the university educational experience while simultaneously working as full-time employees.

“As an institution committed to transforming lives through education, it is rewarding to know that UM employees are taking advantage of that opportunity as well,” Provost Noel Wilkin said. “They are an inspiration to all of us.

“And while the individuals are the ones who truly reap the rewards of additional education, I know that this also makes us a stronger institution.”

For the past two years, these graduates have been celebrated publicly with a Red and Blue Celebration of Achievement. The inaugural ceremony was conducted in 2018 to recognize the achievements of staff members earning degrees.

Thirty-two employees were honored in that initial event, with 24 more full-time staff members being honored in 2019.

Although the planned third annual celebration was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these graduates are to be admired, Associate Provost Donna Strum said.

“We are so proud of the employee graduates and pleased that they wanted to continue to advance their education,” she said. “We know it took tremendous effort, dedication and sacrifice. Their accomplishments are impressive and an inspiration to others.”

The 27 staff members who obtained degrees this year are employed across campus, working jobs that assure student success, campus safety, university development, student-athlete triumphs, information technology advancement and more.

All these staff members balanced working full-time jobs with classes, and then studying and preparing for exams while not working. Many were also parents, spouses and caregivers on top of their work and academic commitments.

And while support was found at home, they also found comfort and aid among their co-workers.

For Angie Gurner, who works in the School of Education‘s Student Advising and Field Experience office, her bachelor’s degree in university studies accomplishes a more-than-25-year mission.

Gurner initially attended UM in 1995 and later earned an associate’s degree elsewhere. But since joining the Ole Miss staff in 2014, Gurner worked toward her bachelor’s, which was awarded in August.

“Over the years, I have had exceptional instructors in such courses as Spanish, education and journalism,” she said. “Since working in the School of Education, I feel I have had the most support since beginning my career at Ole Miss.

“Dr. Whitney Webb, Ms. Donna Patterson, Ms. Kara Parham and Ms. Cindy Misita have continuously encouraged me. I feel blessed to have accomplished this major goal in my life.”

Ann Margaret Compton

Ann Margaret Compton, an academic counselor in the College of Liberal Arts, also acknowledged the support of her co-workers in helping her earn a master’s degree in higher education and student personnel.

“They were there for me cheering me on the whole time, especially having to take off a semester when I found out I had breast cancer,” she said. “They also put up with me obsessing and stressing over each and every assignment and grades.

“It has been a roller coaster of emotions and something to be very proud of in the end. Shout out to the College of Liberal Arts student services family!”

While their reasons for pursuing degrees are as unique as the paths they took, the Red and Blue Graduates realized the opportunity to earn a degree while working at the university was one to seize.

“Being able to pursue my Ph.D. (in higher education) while working full time was an opportunity too good to pass up,” said E. Gray Flora IV, a senior academic mentor with the FASTrack Learning Community and Grove Scholars program director.

“I was so pleased with the knowledge and care of the faculty, the rigor of my classes and the sheer brilliance of those whom I learned alongside. Gratitude is not a strong enough word for how I feel about my experience.”

With their new degrees, these staff members are ready to put what they learned in the classroom into practice, making a positive impact on campus with the knowledge they gained.

“I’ve had the good fortune of experiencing our new Master of Fine Arts in documentary expression program from both sides – as both a Center for the Study of Southern Culture administrator and as a student,” said James G. Thomas Jr., the center’s associate director of publications, who recently earned his M.F.A. “I enjoy being on each side of the teaching podium.

“I don’t suppose I’d be in Barnard Observatory at all if I didn’t have a love of learning, and I’m surrounded by incredibly talented students and colleagues. It’s been the best of both worlds.”

For a full list of Red and Blue Graduates, visit