Three Nontraditional Students Complete Teaching Degrees with Uncommon Excellence

Education Taylor Medalists and Dean David Rock during the May 12, 2012 School of Education graduation ceremony. (left to right) Kerry Franks, Carroll Lee, Rock and Matthew Craig Pharr.

Education Taylor Medalists and Dean David Rock during the May 12, 2012 School of Education graduation ceremony. (left to right) Kerry Franks, Carroll Lee, Rock and Matthew Craig Pharr.

OXFORD, Miss. – A former radiological technician, a licensed youth minister and a young mother may seem to have little in common, but the three University of Mississippi students will graduate Saturday with matching records of outstanding academic achievement.

Kerri Franks, Carroll Lee and Matthew Craig Pharr are all elementary education majors with 4.0 GPAs. They each received a Taylor Medal, the university’s highest academic award, and they are members of the academic honor societies of Phi Kappa Phi, Kappa Delta Pi and Alpha Sigma Lambda.

They also are among 3,363 candidates for degrees who are set to graduate Saturday (May 12). They also join 24 other students being honored Friday evening during the School of Education’s annual awards ceremony. The event is free and open to the public at 5 p.m. in the Ford Ballroom at the Inn at Ole Miss.

Perhaps the most intriguing similarity for Franks, Lee and Pharr is that they excelled as nontraditional students in an academic environment where the majority of their peers were more recent high school graduates. All attribute their success to their own determination and to a strong support network both at home and at Ole Miss.

“We’re excited our programs are producing such passionate and motivated graduates,” said David Rock, UM education dean. “There are many strong, nontraditional students out there who’ve made a commitment to excelling in education. We want to accommodate anyone any way we can.”

For Franks, a Hatley native who is completing her student teaching at Itawamba Attendance Center in Fulton, the motivation to pursue a career in education came after becoming a young mother.

“When I graduated high school, I had no ambition to attend college,” she said. “At 19, I found myself pregnant and in a job with no future. Raising my daughter helped me realize how rewarding teaching really is. So in 2008, I enrolled in Itawamba Community College and began my journey.”

Balancing her studies and her family life has been her biggest challenge during her college career, she said. Nonetheless, Franks still manages to volunteer her time while maintaining perfect grades. She and her grandmother sew toy bags for Operation Christmas Child and wheelchair aprons for nearby nursing homes.

After graduation, she hopes to teach for several years and then pursue a master’s degree in education.

“At orientation, an older gentleman said he graduated summa cum laude – I’d never even heard of such a thing,” Franks said. “I thought if this man who had been out of high school for more than 20 years could do it, then so could I.”

Lee, who is student teaching at Lawndale Elementary School in Tupelo and serves as president of the UM Tupelo chapter of Teachers of Tomorrow, decided to pursue a degree in education after working as an radiology technician. After receiving two associate degrees from ICC, she set her sights on UM Tupelo. In 2009, she enrolled in UM’s elementary education program because she wanted a career working with children.

“It was challenging to be a nontraditional student,” she said. “Some days I wondered if I would actually be able to become a teacher. But after working in another field (radiology), I can honestly say teaching is what I’m supposed to be doing in my life.”

She attributes her success to her support system including her family and her husband, Seth Lee.

“They encouraged me throughout this entire process,” she said. “I know that I would not have been able to make it this far without them.”

After graduation, Lee hopes to work in a K-6 classroom and pursue a master’s degree in education.

“It’s very rewarding to be recognized for the years of hard work and dedication,” she said. “I’m truly honored.”

Pharr, a Marietta native completing his student teaching at Itawamba Attendance Center in Fulton, will serve as his school’s class marshal at commencement. He was selected as UM’s Outstanding Teacher Candidate by the Mississippi Association of Colleges of Teacher Education.

Although Pharr plans to get his teacher’s license this summer, he says he has found his calling in the ministry. For the past three years, he has served as a licensed youth minister at Bethlehem Free Will Baptist Church in Pontotoc, and more recently, at Martin Hill Free Will Baptist Church in Booneville.

“I initially started college as a pre-med, then business,” he said. “But once I decided my calling was in ministry, education became a great option because teaching people is a big component of ministry.”

Like Franks and Lee, Pharr attributes his biggest challenge to the parallel demands from school and his passion.

“My biggest challenge has been balancing my youth ministry with classes,” he said. “Classes can sometimes be demanding and working in ministry always brings about various demanding circumstances.”

After two years at Northeast Mississippi Community College and one year at UM’s main campus in Oxford, Pharr enrolled in UM Tupelo to be closer to his church while completing his education. He’s been able to maintain stellar grades while being active in his church.

After graduation, he will focus all of his attention to his ministry, with hopes of eventually obtaining Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degrees.

For more information about the awards ceremony and the more than 20 education awards to be given to undergraduates, graduate students and alumni, visit