Red and Blue Celebration of Achievement Honors Employees

Second annual event recognizes 24 full-time staff who earned advanced degrees

Erin Parker accepts her honor cords from Provost Noel Wilkin during the second annual Red and Blue Celebration of Achievement at The Inn at Ole Miss. Photo by Megan Wolfe/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – University of Mississippi staff who earned their degrees while working were recognized for their accomplishments Wednesday (May 8) at the second annual Red and Blue Celebration of Achievement.

At least 24 employees who received either a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree during 2019 Commencement exercises were honored.

The celebration began at noon in the Gertrude C. Ford Ballroom of The Inn at Ole Miss. Co-sponsors include Office of the Chancellor, Office of the Provost, University and Public Events, The Inn at Ole Miss and the Ole Miss Alumni Association.

“This was an opportunity for the university community to come together and honor staff members who have successfully navigated the college experience while simultaneously working as an employee at the university,” said Deetra Wiley, staff council marketing manager and an inaugural award recipient who recognized graduates during this year’s event. “During the ceremony, we honor graduating seniors and graduate students with red-and-blue cords, a certificate and a reception.”

The inaugural event was held in 2018 and was brought forth by Anne Klingen and Kevin Cozart as an idea for recognizing the achievements of staff members earning degrees. Other staff council members agreed with them to help make this dream a reality.

“As someone who has earned more than one degree while working full-time for the university, I understand the unique challenges that staff members face while on the path to a degree,” Cozart said. “I thought that it was time for graduating staff members to receive special recognition of their efforts.

“The Red and Blue Celebration and the red-and-navy honors cords are just a small way of achieving this goal.”

Cords were presented by Noel Wilkin, provost and executive vice chancellor for academic affairs. The certificates were presented by Interim Chancellor Larry Sparks. Other program participants were Jessica Coker-Hughes, staff member of the month; Sovent Taylor, former staff council president and an inaugural recipient; and Jason Shirkey, staff council vice president.

Campus units with graduating employees participating were the School of Applied Sciences, Division of Outreach and Continuing Education, Department of Intercollegiate Athletics, Campus Recreation, Center for Student Success and First-Year Experience, Center for the Study of Southern Culture, Office of the Chancellor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Health Professions Advising Office, Marketing and Fan Experience, Office of Admissions, Ole Miss Athletics Foundation, University Police Department, Sports Production, Student Disability Services, Technology and Interactive Video, the Graduate School, The Inn at Ole Miss, UMMC-Office of Academic Affairs and University Communications.

All the 2019 participants in the Red and Blue Celebration of Achievement gather for a memorable moment. Photo by Megan Wolfe/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

Before the ceremony, several recipients shared recollections of how they achieved their degrees. From being a single parent to juggling work and leisure activities, the honorees endured to overcome all the challenges presented to them.

“I had a number of time-management challenges while working and finishing my degree since we have a 4-year-old son and my husband works as a teacher in a different city,” said Mary Knight, a communications specialist with University Development who is receiving her Master of Fine Arts in documentary expression.

“I couldn’t have finished without my husband, Geoff’s, support. We worked out times for me to have study nights and he put in long hours with our son, while I put in long hours studying and editing film projects. Earning my terminal degree has really been a team effort between the two of us.”

EJ Presley, assistant director of career development at the UM Career Center, said his biggest challenge was the length of time for Saturday classes.

“I had to miss quite a few family events and other activities but the journey was well worth the effort,” said Presley, who is receiving his Ed.D. in higher education. “My ultimate long-term goal is to become a president or provost for a university.”

Patricia Coats said she had to schedule time on her calendar to hang out with family and friends while completing her doctoral degree in higher education to properly balance life, work and her studies. She also felt like she was not able to give 100 percent all the time at work, which caused her stress and sleepless nights.

“I kept itemizing daily tasks to help minimize the things I was forgetting to complete,” said Coats, assistant director of academic support services. “I used to take walk-ins. I started placing meeting requests on the calendar so that I could dedicate more time with the students.”

Alexandria White, interim director of the Center for Inclusion and Cross Cultural Engagement, said completing her Ed.D. in higher education is a milestone in her life.

“In 2003, I dropped out of the University of Mississippi with a .75 grade point average,” said White, a first-generation college student who made all the classic mistakes that previously hindered her academic success. “My passion to receive a terminal degree from a university I failed out of was how I overcame those challenges.”

A single mother, White said she often had to balance motherhood, academics and professional demands to complete her degree.

“I had an amazing support group that often watched my daughter so I could study, cooked meals when I had an academic deadline or sent an encouraging text when I was stressed,” she said.